The Institute of International Education estimated that there were 764,495 international students in the U.S. in 2012, a jump of 31 percent from a decade before. Somewhere in the crowd of scholars may lurk a future dictator.
Government-minded graduates of the American system go on to success, even at the highest levels of power. Heads of state such as Tommy Remengesau of Palau and Toomas Ilves of Estonia have American alma maters, ranging from Columbia University to the U.S. Naval War College and Grand Valley State.
But the influx of foreign students carries with it the risk that some of the newly trained graduates may abuse positions of power at home, using American education as a means to leverage themselves higher in authoritarian governments where privilege carries more weight than merit.
The current monarchs of Jordan, Bahrain, Bhutan and Tonga were all educated in the United States. So was Uhuru Kenyatta, the recently elected Kenyan president under indictment by the International Criminal Court for allegedly organizing post-election violence in 2007.
Yahya Jammeh, the Gambian president who seized power in a 1994 military coup, graduated from an American military academy, as did Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman deposed in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, is a George Washington graduate characterized as running a “competitive authoritarian” state—one with quasi-democratic institutions, but no real democracy—by Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky.
And, famously, the leader of Egypt’s July 3, 2013 military coup and the public face of an administration that carried out massive killings to subdue protesters was a member of the U.S. War College Class of 2006. General Fattah El-Sisi, currently the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and Minister of Defense, produced a term paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East” that demanded that the United States ensure “legitimately elected parties be given the room to govern.”
Such considerations evidently did not trouble him when he removed the democratically elected government of Freedom and Justice Party president Mohammed Morsi.
Current U.S.-tutored leaders like Sisi have been accused of war crimes and accepting millions in bribes for construction contracts. Their behavior fits the mold of U.S. graduates who, like Faure Gnassingbé of Togo, grab the reins and hold on as tight as they can.
Gnassingbé, now 47, was installed by his country’s military after the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, in 2005. Eyadéma had been dictator for 38 years, becoming Africa’s longest-ruling strongman, his face imprinted on wristwatches, statues, and comic books proclaiming his invincibility.
Authority was inculcated into Faure, the son of a man so powerful that, according to University of Oklahoma professor and Togolese native Dr. Moussa Blimpo, he forced citizens of the French-speaking country to adopt African first names.
“A lot of us have names that we don’t have on our birth certificates,” Blimpo said. “It’s only recently that I changed back to Moussa.”
Blimpo grew up along with six siblings at his family’s farm in Dapaong, Togo, a northern city far from the election violence that wracked the country in 2005. Although his family had few contacts in the Rally for the Togolese People, Togo’s ruling party from 1960 to 2012, Blimpo’s older brother was able to obtain a coveted mathematics scholarship to France and sponsor his younger brother’s escape to the University of Pau in southwestern France.
Faure, too, went abroad to learn. Gnassingbé was sent to study business management at the Sorbonne in Paris and received an MBA from George Washington University in 1993, before getting his domestic leadership training wheels as Minister of Equipment, Mines, Posts, and Telecommunications in 2003.
His former teacher at GW, Dr. Hossein Askari, recalled Gnassingbé as “a very energetic guy, very lively in class,” someone who had a “good sense of humor.”
“This is a man who’s going to do something with his life,” Askari remembered thinking. “Maybe not a president, but something important.”
And when his father died in February 2005 and the military announced a “power vacuum,” Faure seized his chance.
He was appointed president in explicit violation of the Togolese constitution, leapfrogging head of the National Assembly and ex officio successor, Fambaré Ouattara Natchaba, who was prevented from returning from a trip to Benin when the military closed Togo’s borders.
Blimpo, then completing postgraduate studies at New York University, joined other Togolese students at protests in Washington D.C. The storm of international criticism forced Gnassingbé to step down, but only temporarily.
Two months later, Gnassingbé retook the presidency in widely condemned elections. A United Nations human rights report concluded that up to 500 people may have been killed by government security forces amid systematic voter intimidation.
After winning another 5-year term in 2010, the GW grad has held on, and is now well into his eighth year in office. His American education may be related to his continued grasp on power.
Blimpo, now the director of the Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP), a policy research center based in Togo’s capital, Lomé, said that Gnassingbé’s American education is a key part of the marketing campaign he wages to stay in control.
“That’s actually his selling point,” Blimpo said. “Everyone knows that he was educated in France and the U.S.”
The people of Togo, a country with a per-capita GDP of $584 that has spent the last half-century under the rule of the Gnassingbés, are not alone in their role as the subjects of an American-credentialed authoritarian elite.
Northwestern University political science professor Edward Gibson, a specialist in democratization and Latin America, said that both Western-educated leaders and instances of competitive authoritarianism are on the rise, although the two are not necessarily linked.
“The old-style military authoritarianism is almost non-existent,” Gibson said, but the new style of authoritarianism, exemplified by the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, uses the “façade” of democratic institutions to stay in power and beat down opposition.
Gibson said he believes that an American education is becoming more common for national executives, a symptom of the essential divide between “nationalist, populist” groups concentrated in the countryside and internationally educated “cosmopolitan” free-marketeers based in cities.
Gibson expects American-educated cosmopolitans to become politically dominant in the long-term and subdue authoritarianism.
“It’s not that I’m saying that America brings freedom to the world and all that,” Gibson said. “The side that has more resources tends to be the cosmopolitans.”
But at present, as the American-educated King of Bahrain presides over a civil conflict that has incurred more than 3,000 wounded and the American-trained Jordanian monarchy continues its slow tread towards democracy, the rise of the freedom-loving Westernized cosmopolitans has some distance to go. The gap is brought into sharp relief by a U.S. immigration policy that has open arms for the children of authoritarians.
State Department protocol for reviewing student visa applications is drawn from the Immigration and Nationality Act, which contains language prohibiting drug traffickers, prostitutes, terrorists and assassins from receiving visas, as well as communists and members of totalitarian parties. Totalitarian party members may be admitted at the discretion of the Attorney General if they are related to immigrants already granted entry, or if it is in the “public interest.”
The act describes a totalitarian party as an “organization which advocates the establishment in the United States of a totalitarian dictatorship or totalitarianism.” Such a definition does not include Gnassingbé, nor the monarchs of Jordan, Bahrain, Bhutan and Tonga, nor their children. With no existing restrictions on education-related entry into the United States for members of absolutist, hereditary family autocracies not planning to overthrow the American government, totalitarian rulers can continue to send their children to study in American colleges indefinitely.
Dr. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a New York University political scientist and author of “The Dictator’s Handbook,” said that his informal research has led him to believe that dictators and their children are becoming better educated and more skilled by studying in Western countries, particularly the United Kingdom and United States.
“The world is moving towards hereditary dictatorship and parents like to see their children get a good education,” Bueno de Mesquita said. “The tradeoff is between a greater skill set learned abroad versus having immediate control over the money at home needed to buy loyalty.”
Bueno de Mesquita said that he did not think it would be feasible for colleges to organize a ban on accepting family members of dictators, nor did he think that a degree was entirely necessary given the track record of successful authoritarians like Idi Amin who clung to power despite being “poorly educated thugs.” Instead, he said, the pathway to ending dictatorships lies in recognizing the nature of the dictator’s lifespan.
“A fundamental problem faced by new dictators is that they have a higher probability of being deposed during their first year or two in office than democratic leaders,” he said.
“They have short-term incentives to liberalize until they have locked in on where the money is.”
“There are actions that can be taken to lock the would-be dictator into his or her opportunistic reforms,” Bueno de Mesquita said. “Dictatorship is lucrative but also extremely risky early on.”
In Blimpo’s Togo, eight years into the presidency of Faure Gnassingbé and 46 years into the reign of the Gnassingbé clan, the professor said he believes that change must come gradually, from within.
“Hopefully, the presidency will at least temporarily leave the Gnassingbé family,” Blimpo said. “The best way to do that would be a democratization within the ruling party.”
Blimpo does not think that reforms under George Washington-educated Faure Gnassingbé have been meaningful.
“This is freedom as long as the government does not feel threatened,” he said. “It’s the sort of freedom that can be taken back.”
The mission statement of George Washington University, last revised in 1997, says that the school is dedicated to “furthering human well-being.” For a new generation of Togolese, saddled with steep maternal mortality rates, unemployed youth, and a president who recently congratulated North Korea on its victory in the Korean War, that “well-being” may be in jeopardy.
For countless others in bankrupt autocracies across the globe, American colleges are becoming synonymous with repression.