The Leaders America Hates to Love

Politicians don't always get to choose their friends. For the sake of good relations with strategically important countries, Washington sometimes turns a blind eye to the human-rights abrogations, domestic unpopularity, and the deep character flaws of their leaders. Oppressing minorities, inciting wars, refusing to let go of power—these are all qualities that can be tolerated if a politician or his country can serve America's regional interests. Once in a while, it's as simple as propping up a dictator, the common Cold War complaint about U.S. foreign policy that rewarded any enemy of our enemy. But sometimes the leaders are genuinely complex people perpetrating ambiguous policies. Here, then, is an unscientific and incomplete survey of leaders that the United States needs—and sometimes likes—but who offer reliable bouts of indigestion.

Leader: Mikheil Saakashvili
Position: President of Georgia

What America likes about him: Saakashvili's Western leanings are apparent from his personal background as well as his politics. He was educated in the U.S. with a fellowship from the State Department and studied law at Columbia University and George Washington University. Since coming into power in 2003, Saakashvili has tried to gain accession for Georgia into the European Union and NATO. He has made significant economic reforms, turning the former Soviet republic into a threat to Russia's traditional sphere of influence; he even fought a war with Russia last summer over control of a breakaway province. As a result of Saakashvili's strong anti-Russia and pro-democracy rhetoric, Washington has cultivated him with military training and equipment. In his trip to Tbilisi last week, Vice President Joe Biden reassured Saakashvili that the United States would continue supporting him even while it tried to improve relations with Russia.

What exasperates the U.S.: Despite Saakashvili's claim that he is democratizing Georgia, political reforms have been thin. A peaceful antigovernment demonstration in 2007 turned violent when he ordered police to use tear gas and water cannons to quell the protests. And Georgia's government is still rated 67 of 180 on Transparency International's index. The president's office is so extravagant, some call it "Caligula's palace." Meanwhile, post-facto reports suggest that Saakashvili is largely at fault for provoking the war with Russia last summer, costing thousands of lives and the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. American friendship with—and support for Georgia's entry into NATO—infuriates Russia.

Leader: Viktor Yushchenko
Position: President of Ukraine

What America likes about him: After a contentious electoral battle in 2004, Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych—whose minions are thought to have poisoned his opponent, leaving his face badly scarred—claimed victory over Viktor Yushchenko. But a popular movement known as the Orange Revolution sprung up to protest Yanukovych's election and got the Supreme Court to overturn the results. Yushchenko won the revote a month later in a setback to Russia's regional hegemony. Since coming to power, Yushchenko, too, has pushed for Ukraine's accession to NATO. Like his Georgian counterpart, Yushchenko also has a personal connection with the U.S. His wife is a Ukrainian-American born in Chicago.

What exasperates the U.S.: Yushchenko's term has been plagued with political infighting and unstable parliamentary coalitions, seeding doubt about his ability to unify the country. His cabinets have been marred with accusations of corruption. Domestically, he is blamed for sapping Ukraine's economy, and his popularity has been clocked at a comical 5 percent. His aim to join NATO is not supported by a majority of Ukrainians, let alone Russia, which instigated price disputes over natural gas in retribution—and sometimes shuts off the pipe feeding the country in the dead of winter. Washington's close ties with Yushchenko have escalated its own tensions with Russia, at a time when the Obama administration has promised to "reset" relations with Moscow.

Leader: Silvio Berlusconi
Position: Prime Minister of Italy

What America likes about him: During the Bush years, Berlusconi was America's most trusted ally in continental Europe. Unlike his counterparts in Germany and France, he has rarely voiced criticism of U.S. policy in public. In 2003, despite strong opposition from the Italian public, he sent a mission of Italian troops to support the American-led war in Iraq.

What exasperates the U.S.: The 72-year-old prime minister is a three-ring circus. He leads a tabloid-worthy party life replete with one sex scandal after another. The latest orgy at his Sardinian villa even implicated the former Czech prime minister, making him a menace to his allies and embarrassing Italians (who, nonetheless, have voted him into office thrice). He wooed a convention of lawyers by plugging his country's "beautiful secretaries," and, following the election of Obama last year, he told the press that Americans had chosen a "young, handsome, and sun-tanned" president. The prime minister has also made absurd comparisons between his popularity and that of Jesus Christ and Napoleon.

Leader: Asif Ali Zardari
Position: President of Pakistan

What America likes about him: Washington badly needs Zardari to battle Islamists living in his country or fleeing there from America's war in Afghanistan. Unlike former presidents affiliated with the Army or intelligence services, he does not have any connections with the Taliban, and he has just concluded a major military offensive against the group. Zardari also came to power by election, unlike his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, dovetailing nicely with the so-called "freedom agenda." (Zardari's ties with American officials turned from friendly to flirty when he called Sarah Palin "gorgeous" and offered to hug her in his 2008 meeting with her.) His wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was supposed to be president, but she was assassinated during the campaign.

What exasperates the U.S.: For as long as his family has been involved in politics, it has carried a reputation for corruption. Zardari himself is nicknamed Mr. 10 Percent in honor of his alleged kickback scheme on government contracts. On the terrorism front, it's hardly clear whether his efforts to combat the Taliban have paid off, partly because the Army's reach (and the popularity of the central government) is limited in the outlying provinces. Moreover, the president has already earned comparisons to Musharraf for his authoritarian handling of dissent: recently, he banned text messages and e-mails that contain jokes about him.

Leader: Hosni Mubarak
Position: President of Egypt

What America likes about him: This Arab leader has quashed Islamism in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest, most organized, and best-financed fundamentalist group in Arab politics, has been neutered by Mubarak's regime. Its leaders are often arrested and their activities are restricted. Mubarak has also held up Egypt's part in a peace treaty with Israel (in exchange for cash from Washington) negotiated by Jimmy Carter. And he helped Israel seal the Gaza Strip by restricting entry and exit to the Palestinian area.

What exasperates the U.S.: The 81-year-old dictator stands directly athwart democracy and freedom of expression in Egypt. His regime jails opponents and censors the press. (In 2008, a newspaper editor was jailed just for reporting that the president was ill.) By manipulating the electoral process, Mubarak has ruled through a "state of emergency" for close to 30 years and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal for the job.

Leader: Benjamin Netanyahu
Position: Prime Minister of Israel

What America likes about him: Netanyahu enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, as all Israeli prime ministers do. Having spent part of his life living in the U.S., he speaks flawless, unaccented American English. And he is uncompromising in his opposition to Iran's nuclear-weapon ambitions: Netanyahu has suggested that his government will stop Iran from getting the bomb, no matter what it takes.

What exasperates the U.S.: Netanyahu has balked at Obama's attempt to negotiate with the Iranians and has demanded a firm deadline for Tehran's response. In the meantime, his right-wing government refuses to halt the growth of West Bank settlements, a key component of the peace process. To form a coalition in Israel's Parliament, he selected the hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, who favors the "transfer" of Israeli Arabs to Palestinian control. Some in the Obama administration also worry Netanyahu could launch a preemptive strike against Iran without first alerting Washington or soliciting American approval.