With numerous reports that the White House moving closer to military action in Syria, the possibility of war is certainly looming.
In the meantime, this awkward photo of Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife dining with the Assads in 2009 has gone viral amidst Kerry's harshest criticism of the Syrian government to date. Describing the government's use of chemical weapons against civilians as a "cowardly crime" and a "moral obscenity," Kerry said, "There must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people."
Although the cozy dinner seen in the photograph may have taken place years ago, it does show the downward spiral of the U.S.-Assad relationship in just four years. It is also not the first time a relationship between the U.S. and a foreign dictator has gone south.
According to Freedom House's Daniel Calingaert, "U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes often focus on a tradeoff between security and economic interests on the one hand, and human rights and democracy on the other." However, when strong opinion mounted against them, these supportive relationships proved to be no longer an option.
Here is a list of former dictators that did have key relationships with U.S. until strong opinion or vested interests caused them to turn sour:
1. President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt
Although the U.S.-Egypt relationship has been complicated at best, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been an ally of the United States since taking power in October 1981.
In addition to being a recipient of U.S. aid, Egypt's relatively peaceful relationship with Israel has been viewed as a critical, stabilizing factor in Middle East politics and one that the U.S. greatly valued for nearly three decades.
During his 29 years of rule, Mubarak visited the White House, Camp David, and even George W. Bush's Crawford ranch, and posed with multiple U.S. presidents from Reagan to Obama.
As the Egyptian people's protests and street demonstrations raged on in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, the Obama administration distanced itself from the Egyptian leader but stopped short of demanding that he resign. Instead it called for "an orderly transition" to a "democratic participatory government" and asked security forces to refrain from violence.
2. President Saddam Hussein, Iraq
Twenty years ago, U.S. officials sought to build ties with Saddam Hussein's government rather than overthrow it. The Reagan administration even sent then-private citizen Donald Rumsfeld to try and improve relations with the Iraqi administration.
According to CNN, "Iraq's secular regime was an important counter-balance to Iran, where anti-American passion mixed with radical Islam had led to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah."
"In the 1980s, our Arab allies in the region and our own assessment convinced us that Iraq might be a new kind of moderate Arab leader, that [Saddam] could be brought into the moderate Arab camp," said New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler.
Although the U.S.-Iraq relationship was strained after Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurds, it wasn't until Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that the U.S. turned against its former ally. The relationship remained rocky until the second President Bush pushed for a pre-emptive strike against the "tyrant."
"The American people know my position," President Bush said. "And that is that regime change is in the interest of the world."
3. President Muammar Gaddafi, Libya
The United States' relationship with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was always a roller-coaster.
Gaddafi was called the "mad dog of the Middle East" after Libya was named a suspect in the horrific 1986 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that was frequented by the U.S. military. A week later, the U.S. military attacked Libya, hitting a Gaddafi compound in Tripoli.
The frosty relationship between the two countries only began to thaw after Gaddafi promised to give up his weapons of mass destruction. President Bush also reportedly called Gaddafi in November 2008 to "express satisfaction about the Lockerbie claims settlement."
According to Reuters, "diplomats and businessmen flocked to Libya in greater numbers. Famous U.S. entertainers performed for the Gaddafi clan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Gaddafi in Tripoli in 2008."
The newly-smoothened relationship, however, would not last long. After a rebellion against Gaddafi's rule began in 2011, the U.S. backed the rebels against Gaddafi's forces and declared that the Libyan leader had to go.
After Gaddafi's death, Obama said,"You have won your revolution."
4. President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, Tunisia
Before the uprising that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia was often touted as "a near-perfect" U.S. ally.
According to Al Jazeera, "Tunisia exemplified what the United States believed serves its interests: a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political expression."
The ideal relationship, however, began to change after the suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 sparked a revolutionary fire in the country.
Although then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the U.S. was "not taking sides," she did express her concern over the country's "unrest and instability" and its possible impact on the "very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia."
Reluctant to issue public criticism of Ben Ali's authoritarian methods, the U.S. remained silent about Tunisian protests. It wasn't until the Tunisian leader fled the country that President Obama applauded the courage of Tunisian civilians and condemned the violence used against them.