May 14, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Small Footprints, Unsavory Deals

America needed a base -- a secure, permanent airfield that would put the U.S. Air Force in striking distance of hot spots in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The answer was in the Azores. Throughout the Cold War, this string of Portuguese-owned islands served as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Atlantic.

This strategic asset proved its value again and again. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the airlift from the Azores reinforced the Israelis with more than 22,000 tons of supplies and equipment.

There was, however, a dark side to the basing agreement. With no better options, the United States often found itself stuck with accepting Lisbon policies that put us on the wrong side of right.

Portugal was a dictatorship, tenaciously holding on to its colonies in Africa and Asia. And, for the most part, the U.S. looked the other way, even promoting Portugal as a founding member of NATO. The reason was simple enough. Strongman Oliveira Salazar warned that, if Washington pressed his country, it "could not expect Portugal to make concessions to the United States in the Azores."

And so, in the Azores, the U.S. had to pick between promoting freedom and safeguarding other national security concerns.

Sometimes tough choices do need to be made in foreign policy. But often as not, leaders get stuck with unpalatable options because they set themselves up. President Obama is doing just that.

Case in point: Obama seems enamored with drone strikes as the "easy button" for dealing with transnational terrorism. Embracing Vice President Biden's notion that everything can be done with a "small footprint," the president has endorsed massive cuts in defense capabilities.

One of the smallest footprints is the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. A few thousand task force troops have been launching strikes against al Shabab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group that has attempted to organize several strikes on the U.S.

But the task force is based in Djibouti, not exactly a bastion of freedom. Human Rights Watch last year blasted the government's "systematic crackdown on political opposition." Reporters Without Borders reports that the country has "no media freedom." Freedom House rates the country as flat-out "Not Free."

Obama's problem is that, as he guts the Pentagon's capacity to project power, the military's options for where it can base operations -- and where it can reach -- decline as well. Increasingly, the White House will find itself sloughing off America's human rights agenda because it has no other options.

On the other hand, with robust, capable and versatile armed forces, the U.S. has more options. America won't be as dependent on unsavory regimes to protect her national interests. She can go elsewhere if need be.

Further, when regimes with troubled human rights records know the U.S. has options, they are more susceptible to outside pressure to adopt the kinds of reforms that reduce corruption, promote economic freedoms and safeguard human rights.

America has several partners in Africa with less-than-perfect records on putting the interests of their people ahead of maintaining power. Because our footprint on the continent is already very light, cutting back on overall U.S. military capabilities only makes it more likely we will have to cut deals that advance neither freedom nor security very well. Nor is Africa likely the only part of the world where the U.S. will find itself dependent on making bad deals with bad people.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow