My essay, “The Corruption Game: What the Tunisian Revolution and WikiLeaks Tell Us about American Support for Corrupt Dictatorships in the Muslim World is up at The Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.
In July of 2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador dined with Nesrine Ben Ali el-Materi and Sakher el-Materi, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, at their sumptuous mansion. Materi, who rose through nepotism to dominate Tunisia’s media, provided a 12-course dinner with Kiwi juice — “not normally available here” — and “ice cream and frozen yoghurt he had flown in from Saint Tropez,” all served by an enormous staff of well-paid servants. The ambassador remarked on the couple’s pet tiger, “Pasha,” which consumed “four chickens a day” at a time of extreme economic hardship for ordinary Tunisians.
Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president’s upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value. In 2006, the U.S. ambassador estimated that 50% of the economic elite of Tunisia was related by blood or marriage to the president, a degree of nepotism hard to match outside some of the Persian Gulf monarchies.
Despite full knowledge of the corruption and tyranny of the regime, the U.S. embassy concluded in July 2009: “Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral.”
The notion that, if the U.S. hadn’t given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” might have established a “toehold” in the country was daft. Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.
Read the whole thing.