WASHINGTON, June 2, 2017 – 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 recent 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 Mr. 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-Sisi 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Sisi hesitated. He did not sign the legislation.
Now, having effectively been given the go-ahead by President Trump, he has moved forward
Mr. Sisi, who has arrested tens of thousands of people, many of them tortured, knows he has a friend in Donald Trump. When Sisi 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 Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
During the presidential campaign, Mr. 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 SuperBowl 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 “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.”
Tellingly, 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.
While 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 an American president would gratuitously undermine what little credibility NATO deterrence already has, by ostentatiously refusing to recommit to Article 5, is shocking.
His omission was all the more problematic due to his personal history. This is a man who is 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?
If President Trump does not want to lead the Free World, perhaps others will rise to the occasion until the U.S. is once again prepared to provide the leadership it has provided for more than 70 years.
When she visited Moscow early in May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly asked Vladimir Putin to stop religious repression and the torture of gay men in Russian prisons. 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 “organs of influence and propaganda.”
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 “organs of influence and propaganda.”
Leading up to the recent French election, Putin had expressly backed Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, who also was viewed sympathetically by Donald Trump. Le Pen wanted France to leave the EU and NATO, Putin’s major goals. On the eve of the French election, Macron’s campaign suffered a massive cyberattack that it compared to the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. U.S. Intelligence agencies have blamed that operation on the Russian government.
How to explain Donald Trump’s embrace of the enemies of democracy is a difficult undertaking. But his actions are unprecedented and could threaten the future of the Western alliance. Michael Hayden, who served as director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and the CIA from 2006 to 2009, provides this assessment:
“In November, a few days before the election, I tried to parse Donald Trump’s strange affection for Vladimir Putin and the various contacts members of his campaign had had with folks in Russia. The best explanation I could come up with was something the Russians call ‘polezni rural,’ the ‘useful fool.’ That’s a term from the Soviet era describing the naive individual whom the Kremlin usually held in contempt but who could be induced to do things on its behalf. Six months later, it is disappointing to report, the term ‘useful fool’ still 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.
It is time for those who seek to advance the long-term interests of what we used to call the Free World, both Republicans and Democrats, to make sure our current policies are challenged and reversed.
Hopefully, President Trump has seriously miscalculated if he seriously believes he was elected to preside over the decline of U.S. world leadership.