The United States need not leave Djibouti, but it is time to consider a Plan B for otherwise a single whisper from Beijing to Djibouti’s president could cripple America’s ability to defend itself and its allies.by Michael Rubin
BERBERA, SOMALILAND—Djibouti’s role in U.S. national security has for decades been inversely proportional to its size. The tiny East African country has long been a logistical hub for the U.S. military. Its airfield helped supply U.S. forces in Somalia in the early 1990s, and U.S. Navy vessels visited its port frequently. Because Djibouti—a French colony or territory for nearly a century before its 1977 independence—hosted French forces, the U.S. military could utilize the French infrastructure when necessary.
The real import of Djibouti to U.S. security calculations, however, came after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the George W. Bush administration formed Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) first to coordinate and conduct regional stability operations and then to oversee counterterrorism operations in both Yemen and across the broader region. The Obama administration’s growing reliance ondrone strikes—many of which it launched from Djibouti—only increased the country’s importance. Since formally arriving, the Pentagon has invested several billion dollars in Camp Lemonnier, today the largest U.S. military base in Africa and the keystone of U.S. Africa Command operations, hosting four thousand soldiers, sailors, and Marines spread over five hundred acres.
The United States, of course, has not been alone in recognizing Djibouti’s strategic position. The French initially carved what now is Djibouti out from greater Somalia because of its position and harbor. The British had established a coaling station in Aden to support the United Kingdom’s military and commercial interests in East Africa and the Indian Ocean. Djibouti—with a natural harbor just 150 miles away from Aden—served much the same purpose as the French sought to keep Madagascar, Mauritius, and other regional interests secure. The Suez Canal, of course, made the Bab-el-Mandab chokepoint adjacent to the country even more important. Over the decades, technology may have changed by Djibouti’s strategic position did not. Today, in addition to the United States, France maintains a presence and hosts German and Spanish troops at its base. Italy and Japan also have facilities, and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also rent space. China, meanwhile, has built a major new base in the country as it expands its interests in the Indian Ocean basin and Africa. Iran has, in the past, also sought to make inroads but was forced out because of U.S. and Western pressure.
What goes around comes around, however. To date, China has tolerated the presence of its geopolitical competitors in Djibouti, and the Djiboutian government has been happy to leverage its location to collect rents from as many outside powers as possible. But, not every investor in Djibouti is equal. China has financed a water pipeline for Djibouti, as well as a railroad to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. While U.S. aid to Djibouti peaked at $31 million in 2017, a Chinese company signed a preliminary $4 billion natural gas deal with Djibouti that same year.
That aid disparity might be enough to tip the scales toward deference to Beijing’s interests, but Djibouti’s corruption makes a tilt toward China—should Chinese authorities demand it—more likely. Djibouti has had only two leaders since its independence—Hassan Gouled Aptidon ruled the country with an iron fist for the first 22 years after its independence. Upon his death, his nephew and handpicked successor Ismaïl Omar Guelleh took over, and has run the country ever since. Corruption remains a major problem in the country, with few deals able to proceeds without Guelleh or his relatives personally benefiting, if not in bribes then in business contracts which any Western country would consider a conflict of interest.