For a base on the strategic Horn of Africa, the Obama administration will evidently overlook a lot.
It has tolerated the leader of Djibouti deploying lethal force against political foes and extending his autocratic rule while allowing the Chinese Navy to open its first overseas base in Africa.
The base will put China's expanding military in close proximity to a key national security asset: a 4,000-strong American military presence that includes the largest United States drone installation outside Afghanistan.
Ismail Omar Guelleh, president of the tiny country, engineered a fourth term in office for himself Friday, claiming 87 percent of the vote and adding to disquiet in Washington. Members of Congress, citing Guelleh's human rights record and iron grip on power, have in the past urged President Obama to re-examine a close relationship that dates to the beginning of this century. Now some are calling for regime change.
“The U.S. should insist on an orderly change of Djibouti’s government that is based on fair and open elections and open press coverage,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on June 26. More recently others have joined the call.
The clamor has been building for more than a year. In a March, 2015, letter, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) wrote Secretary Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice to warn of "China’s unprecedented investment in Djibouti and worrisome behavior by the country’s longtime leader.” The two congressmen warned that Chinese investment in infrastructure could be “parlayed into investment in strategic influence.”
They appear to have been proved right. No sooner had Kerry departed Djibouti after a visit last May, Guelleh announced the beginning of negotiations with the Chinese toward building a base in the country. Although the expected completion date is not known, the base is expected to hold about 10,000 personnel, dwarfing the American presence.
In its counterterrorism efforts, the Obama administration has relied increasingly on drone and special forces operations from Djibouti, a predominantly Muslim nation of 900,000 about the size of New Jersey where numerous Western powers have operations. Djibouti doesn’t have much except location: It sits athwart one of the most important shipping lanes in the world – where the Red Sea empties into the Indian Ocean – and just across from the permanent hotbed that is the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa established its headquarters in a former French Foreign Legion camp in 2002.
The Obama administration has aggressively expanded both American drone operations against terrorists and military operations in Africa. The U.S. counterterrorism combat hub in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, confronts extremist Muslim groups in almost every direction. These range from Boko Haram, based in Nigeria and affiliated with the Islamic State, to Al Qaeda operations such as al Shabaab in Somalia and in the Arabian Peninsula. For Camp Lemonnier, the principal targets are in Yemen and Somalia, according to various accounts and sources.
Given its expanding mission, the U.S. began a $1.4 billion upgrade of Camp Lemonnier in 2002, and the base has grown to nearly 500 acres from 88. In 2014, the U.S. signed a 20-year extension on its Lemonnier lease, which costs about $70 million a year. Drone sorties, often under the orders of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were running at nearly 16 per day in October 2012, primarily against Yemeni targets across the Gulf of Aden, according to a Washington Post series on increased U.S. military activity in Djibouti.
Sharing runways with Djibouti’s only international airport, Camp Lemonnier was responsible for more than half of the 30,000 takeoffs and landings there in 2014, The Post reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials. Those American flights include fighter jets, spy aircraft and both Predator and Reaper drones.
China sees strategic value in Djibouti for different reasons. Clues come in the Chinese Communist Party’s first public military strategy “white paper,” released last May. It said China would “endeavor to seize the strategic initiative in military struggle, proactively plan for military struggle in all directions and domains, and grasp the opportunities to accelerate military building.”
It has done so in the South China Sea, stoking diplomatic disputes over small, uninhabited islands. And it has ramped up its so-called “string of pearls” defense, in which it views the Indian Ocean as part of the greater Pacific and seeks to ring Asia’s southern coast with footholds.
The base in Djibouti would give China “a formidable – and more permanent – maritime and potentially aerial springboard deep into the northwest Indian Ocean region, as well as north, east and central Africa,” Andrew S. Erickson, a strategy professor at the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, wrote in a blog post.
Administration officials seem less alarmed than Republicans in Congress. In a brief letter to Hunter last June, a Kerry aide characterized the secretary’s May visit to Djibouti as productive, adding that “we welcome the attention Africa is receiving from countries like China” and others, explaining that the investment and activity would be good for Africans.
An administration official echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
"The United States and China both want to see political stability and peace on the continent," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told American Media Institute. "We therefore welcome Chinese contributions to African peace and security, including its deployment of peacekeepers in regions affected by strife, and Chinese involvement in counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa."
But as members of Congress urge the administration to move beyond words to prod Djibouti toward political reform, Guelleh, who has held power since 1999, shows no sign of stepping down. He altered the constitution to allow a presidential third term; while running for it in April 2011, according to contemporary accounts, he proclaimed: “No, this is it, it’s my last run.” It wasn’t. Guelleh went on to change the rules again last November, announcing his campaign for a fourth term on the same day he revealed the base negotiations with China.
Djibouti currently ranks 124th on the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, and under Guelleh the country stands at No. 170, just behind Cuba, on Reporters Without Borders' 2015 World Press Freedom rankings. Last week, Djibouti detained and then expelled a BBC crew sent to cover Friday’s elections.
President Obama welcomed Guelleh to the White House in May, 2014, when the two leaders signed the 20-year Camp Lemonnier lease expansion. Two months later, in July, Obama delivered an address “to the people of Africa” in Addis Ababa, the capital of Djibouti’s neighbor, Ethiopia, which forms one end point of a railway China has built between the two nations.
The President said Africa’s democratic progress is at risk “when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end. And no one person is above the law. Not even the president.” Obama added, according to a transcript released by the White House: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife. And this is often just the first step down a perilous path.”
As the election approached, Guelleh's forces moved harshly against a puny democratic opposition, arresting hundreds. In December, government troops opened fire at a religious gathering in the capital, killing at least 19 people and wounding many others, according to press accounts.
Rohrabacher and Smith reached out to Kerry and Carter again in February. They repeated the same points they made nearly a year ago and concluded the situation has deteriorated, not improved. They also appeared to back Hunter’s stance that “regime change” should be the American policy, urging the United States to insist on “the free and open elections” as several Africa nations have held and “urge President Guelleh to step down.”
In Djibouti, the congressmen wrote, China “simply bought its access to the country’s port by building a presidential palace, two airports and a railroad.”
“We are worried that our own strategic interests around the Horn of Africa, specifically our critical counterterrorism operations, will be impacted by China’s growing strategic influence in the region,” they wrote. “President Guelleh is not a reliable partner for the United States.”