Emboldening Authoritarian Leaders
We have seen, in recent days, the very unusual sight of a U.S. President saying nice things about authoritarian leaders while, at the same time, disparaging our democratic allies and friends.
On his visit to Saudi Arabia, a country with no religious freedom, no rights for women, and no elections, President Trump never mentioned the term “human rights.” Instead, he told the assembled authoritarian leaders of the Arab world, “We are not here to lecture.” He told the leader of Bahrain that there would be no more “strains” with that regime. The “strains” concerned the Sunni government’s crackdown on its Shite opposition. Days later, given a free hand, Bahrain killed at least five people and arrested hundreds in the bloodiest act of repression in years. The lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia seemed to be welcomed by Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who marveled that, “There was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a placard.” Given a free hand by President Trump, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi returned to Cairo and closed down 20 news sites and arrested dozens of secular liberal political activists, including Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who had said he might run against Sissi in the 2018 presidential election.
A new law was ratified imposing unprecedented restrictions on civil society groups. The new rules essentially make it illegal for Egyptians to form independent associations without the government’s permission. Leading members of Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC), warned that they would attach new conditions to U.S. aid to Egypt if the law were enacted. Sissi hesitated. He did not sign the legislation. Now, having effectively been given the go-ahead by President Trump, he has moved forward. Sissi, who has arrested tens of thousands of people, many of them tortured, knows he has a friend in Donald Trump. When Sissi visited Washington recently, Trump greeted him with these words: “I just want everybody to know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President Sissi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump made clear his approval of authoritarian leaders. He called Vladimir Putin “a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond” and gave him an “A” for leadership. In 2015, he contrasted Putin favorably with Obama. “At least he’s a leader unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said. In 2014, on “Fox News,” Trump offered this assessment on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “You look at what Putin’s doing. And so smart. When you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, okay, ‘We’ll go and take it over.’ And he really goes step by step by step, and you have to give him a lot of credit.” Trump not only embraced Putin’s justification for the invasion, but admired this breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2017, “Fox News” aired an interview in which Bill O’Reilly questioned Trump about his “respect” for Putin: “Putin is a killer,” O’Reilly pointed out. Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent? Many conservatives, as well as liberals and others, are expressing dismay with Trump’s embrace of dictators and authoritarian leaders. Abe Greenwald, senior editor of Commentary (June 2017) has just written an important article, “Is This The End Of The Free World?” “If Donald Trump has a sense of what makes Ukraine or the United States better and more just than Putin’s Russia, he’s shown no evidence of it,” he writes. “In fact, he evinces no appreciation whatsoever for the probity of the free world. Such a failing in an American president will not leave the cause of liberty unharmed.”
Trump is courting a number of other oppressive leaders as well. Greenwald notes that, “He has reached out to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister. In November, the staunchly anti-immigration Orban told a Hungarian newspaper that Trump had invited him to the White House. ‘He invited me to Washington, I told him that I hadn’t been there for a long time as I had been treated as a black sheep,’ Orban said. To which Trump replied, laughing: ‘Me, too.’ President Trump has ramped up senior-level engagement between Hungary and the United States. In April, after Turkey voted in favor of a referendum granting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authoritarian powers, Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on what is, in effect, the end of any hope for a free Turkey. One week later, Trump invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House. Duterte, an anti-American paranoid, has encouraged a campaign of vigilante murder against suspected drug dealers that has resulted in untold thousands of deaths.”
W hile embracing leaders who have only contempt for freedom and democracy, Trump has belittled and insulted our friends. On January 28, eight days after becoming president, Trump spoke on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He berated Turnbull over an agreement in which the U.S. agreed to accept a certain number of refugees from an Australian detention center. “This is the worst deal ever,” said Trump. He also told Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders by phone that day, including Vladimir Putin, and that the present conversation was the “worst call by far.” After 25 minutes of a scheduled one-hour talk, Trump hung up. At the recent NATO meeting in Brussels, Trump lectured his closest allies, did not pledge his commitment to the alliance, and insulted Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. In the case of another close ally, South Korea, Trump said he wanted South Korea to pay for the $1 billion Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system—which the U.S. had already begun installing in Seongju. According to an agreement of which Trump evidently knew nothing, the U.S. had agreed to pay for the system. Concerning the unusual Trump performance at the NATO meeting in Brussels, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer writes that, “It is because deterrence is so delicate, so problematic, so literally unbelievable, that it is not to be trifled with. And why for an American president to gratuitously undermine what little credibility deterrence already has, by ostentatiously refusing to recommit to Article 5 is so shocking…His omission was all the more shocking because of his personal history. This is a man chronically disdainful of NATO… One of his top outside advisers, Newt Gingrich, says that ‘Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,’ as if Russian designs on the Baltic states are not at all unreasonable….The American deterrent has been weakened. And deterrence weakened is an invitation to instability, miscalculation, provocation and worse. And for what?”
Late in May, when Putin visited Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a blunt greeting to the Russian leader, criticizing the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Russian-backed government and denouncing two Russian state- owned media organizations as “org’s campaign’s suffered a massive cyber-attack that it compared to the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year. U.S. Intelligence agencies have blamed that operation on the Russian government. How to explain Trump’s embrace of the enemies of democracy is a difficult undertaking. It is unprecedented and threatens the future of the Western till seems a pretty apt description.“What we do know is that at the present time, the Western alliance is in disarray and Vladimir Putin’s goal of weakening the EU and NATO seems to be moving forward. Why any American president would preside over policies which lead to such a result is difficult to understand.