History is full of some very bad characters that have made a mark on the world. Names like Adolf Hitler, Genghis Kahn and Pol Pot come to mind. These are not people most of us would want to do business with and yet, there have been cases where countries, including the United States, have had relationships with some unsavory and even evil people when it served larger national interests. Some would call this a cynical abandonment of higher values, but geopolitics and national security can be dirty, vicious exercises in choosing bad options over still worse ones.
5. General Manuel Noriega
Many Americans had never heard of Gen. Manuel Noriega until U.S. forces were preparing to take him down, but CIA and law enforcement officials had known about him for two decades, and he reportedly received up to $100,000 annually from the CIA throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. His position in the Panamanian military made him a valuable asset in the war against drug cartels. Unfortunately, Noriega’s position also gave him the opportunity to get involved in a host of illegal activities including drug smuggling, money laundering and even murder. The Reagan administration finally cut off military and economic aid to Panama in 1987, but tensions escalated in 1989, especially after Noriega’s forces killed a U.S. Marine. President H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause on Dec. 20, 1989, sending more than 25,000 troops into Panama. Noriega eluded capture for a few days, but finally surrendered at the Vatican embassy and was brought to Miami for trial. He was convicted of cocaine smuggling and sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2010, Noriega was extradited to France to face money-laundering charges, and at age 76 he was sentenced to seven years in jail.
4. Saddam Hussein
Iraqi forces invaded Iranian territory in September 1980 and set off a long, bloody war between the two Muslim nations. Iran had recently become an enemy of the U.S. with the rise of the radical cleric Ayatollah Khomeini and the embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. The Carter administration began to see Iraq as a counter-balance against Iranian ambitions in the Persian Gulf region and the Reagan administration stepped up the policy and sent Donald Rumsfeld as a representative of the U.S. government to meet Saddam Hussein in 1983. The U.S. provided economic, military and intelligence support to Iraq to prevent Iran from defeating it and spreading its Islamist revolution to Iraq’s Shia population. Saddam likely believed his past relationship with the U.S. would shield him from the consequences of his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. He was disabused of that when President H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Saddam’s forces were decimated and kicked out of Kuwait with the military campaign known as Operation Desert Storm. The U.S. led a multinational force in an invasion of Iraq in 2003, in search of weapons of mass destruction. Hussein, of course, was captured in December 2003. After being found guilty of crimes against humanity, he was hung Dec. 30, 2006.
3. Ho Chi Minh
The first time most Americans heard of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh came in the mid-1960s as the United States escalated the war in Vietnam. Yet Ho’s involvement with the United States dates to World War II when Imperial Japanese forces invaded French Indochina in 1940. Ho used his skills as a Communist organizer to help build a guerilla movement to fight the Japanese occupation. The U.S. military’s Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the CIA) and Soviet intelligence provided Ho and General Giap with military assistance. American doctors also treated Ho when he contracted malaria. With the Japanese defeat in 1945, France decided to reassert its colonial claims over Vietnam, but ran into resistance from Ho’s Viet Minh. After protracted fighting, the French abandoned their claim and Vietnam was divided into a communist country in the north and a republic in the south. The Cold War heated up in the 1960s when President Kennedy began sending combat troops to augment the advisors already in South Vietnam to prevent Ho’s regular army and Viet Cong guerillas from conquering their neighbors to the south. The war, which cost almost 60,000 American lives, ended in triumph for North Vietnam, even though Ho died in 1969. To memorialize the late leader, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after North Vietnamese forces sacked South Vietnam in 1975. Ho remains a national hero in Vietnam today, more than 40 years after his death.
2. Osama Bin Laden
The founder of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in a 1996 fatwa, or religious proclamation. Before he became the leader of the worldwide terrorist movement, Osama Bin Laden was a moneyman funding some of the Mujahideen resisting the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan and American intelligence cooperated to give aid to some of the same Mujahideen forces. Although the CIA and Bin Laden later denied any contact with the other they had common cause and were victorious when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Bin Laden first voiced anti-American sentiments in 1990 when Saudi Arabia allowed U.S. troops to use the kingdom to stage an attack on an Iraqi invasion force that had overrun Kuwait. The first attack against America attributed to Bin Laden is the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Yemen used by U.S. troops traveling to Somalia as part of a UN force distributing food to the war-torn country. Bin Laden directed several other attacks against U.S. interests during the decade, including the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole Navy destroyer in 2000. Still, Bin Laden was an unknown to many Americans until the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the mainland U.S. After a decade-long search, Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in a firefight in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
1. Josef Stalin
Stalin was one of the worst mass murderers in history, starving millions of his own people in the 1930s with his ruthless campaign of forced land collectivization. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin needed an ally. Britain and America needed an ally, too, so the capitalist West decided to help the Communist dictator fight Hitler. America’s Lend-Lease Act provided $11 million in crucial military aid as the Soviet Army fought a horrific battle with German forces that stalled out in the suburbs of Moscow. When Germany surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, it spelled the end of the United States’ alliance with Stalin. Relations quickly soured between the two countries. The dictator immediately positioned large numbers of troops in Eastern Europe to influence the shape of post-war Europe, launching the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Stalin died in 1953, but not before his post-war efforts set the stage for a U.S/Soviet nuclear standoff that would last more than 40 years.