As President Obama takes his final laps around the Oval Office, America’s influence around the world is waning. Conservatives — myself included — have widely documented how America’s new “hands off” foreign policy approach has led to destabilization in places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The vacuum created in the wake of our departure from the world stage has been filled by violent movements that feed off instability; their atrocities spreading throughout the region and across the globe.
The growing void in global leadership is also proving deleterious in the Horn of Africa — particularly in the strategic port of Djibouti. Here, despite playing host to a strong American military presence for more than a decade, and providing a strategic base in the fight against radical jihadists, Djibouti, lead by despotic President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, is shifting ever closer to the Chinese.
The most brazen signal the Chinese have become Djibouti’s preferred partners occurred last August, when the U.S. military was ordered to vacate the Obock military base in favor of new tenants: the People’s Liberation Army. The move gave China its first overseas base; complete with the U.S.-built facilities we left behind. By the time China completes an additional build-out to house an estimated 10,000 troops, it will have the largest military presence in the country.
Where America hesitates in Djibouti, China moves with purpose, investing heavily in infrastructure — and increasingly — influence. China has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into improving Djibouti’s infrastructure to sweeten its military deals. Among China’s “strategic investments”: a $420 million contract awarded to state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation to expand port facilities; a $4 billion railway line between Djibouti and Ethiopia; two airports, estimated to cost upwards of $599 million; and what better way to invest in influence than to foot the bill on a $4.3 million renovation of the People’s Palace, where President Guelleh took the oath of office following a violent, repressive and illegitimate campaign. It was a Chinese-financed political campaign enabled only after Guelleh amended the country’s constitution allowing him to seek a third and now a fourth term.
Not surprisingly, what China gains in influence, Djiboutians lose in freedom, America loses leverage, and where everyone has to be aware that political oppression is on the rise. When President Guelleh’s troops opened fire on opposition activists last December killing 19, NGOs were quick to call on the international community to respond; yet the Obama and the U.S. refused. Our inaction prompted Professor Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, to write, “I hang my head in shame that, after Guelleh’s troops opened fire on civilians on 21 December last year, neither the State Department nor the White House would condemn the massacre.”
In addition to rising political oppression, Guelleh’s government is actively working to suppress media freedom in the country. Reporters Without Borders highlighted Djibouti’s deliberate policy to close access to local and external media and the European Union condemned the lack of independent press in the country. Even Mark Zuckerberg was thrown into the fray after President Guellah brought legal proceedings against Facebook over what he claims are offensive posts about him on the social media site.
Several of my former colleagues have taken notice. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) have asked Washington to reconsider its support of President Guelleh, while Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) criticized Gulleh for leading “a corrupt and repressive regime” and an overly “cozy relationship with China.”
But their voices are not enough. The Obama administration must re-engage. We still have thousands of American military and contracting personnel stationed in Djibouti, directing the fight against militant terror organizations in the Horn of Africa and throughout the Middle East. Our physical presence is powerful, but only if buttressed by concrete actions that support the values and ideals we know are right and that we hold others accountable to.
The United States has an important role to play counterbalancing Chinese influence in Djibouti and in the broader region. We must not overlook this responsibility in the waning months of the current Administration.
Pete Hoekstra served as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2004-2007.