How Trump’s em­brace of dic­ta­tors is dif­fer­ent

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE APPLEBAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­

Ev­ery Amer­i­can president in re­cent his­tory has had rea­sons to meet with dic­ta­tors. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt di­vided up Europe with Stalin at the Yalta sum­mit. Richard Nixon went to Bei­jing to meet Mao. Ron­ald Rea­gan wel­comed Fer­di­nand and Imelda Mar­cos to the White House. Most of them met with Saudi princes, whether in Washington or Riyadh.

Con­tact is un­avoid­able; so too, some­times, are deals, of­ten jus­ti­fied as em­bar­rass­ing sac­ri­fices to be made in the name of a greater good. Dur­ing the Cold War, the United States of­ten backed vi­cious au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers against vi­cious com­mu­nist in­sur­gen­cies. The rea­sons for this were best ar­tic­u­lated by Jeane Kirk­patrick, who ar­gued that while authoritarianism could be mod­i­fied, com­mu­nism could not, be­cause its to­tal­i­tar­ian as­pi­ra­tions killed off com­merce, reli­gion, civil so­ci­ety and much else.

This proved un­true — after 70 years, com­mu­nism even­tu­ally col­lapsed — and as a pol­icy it of­ten ended badly (see: Viet­nam). Yet even the most retroac­tively em­bar­rass­ing en­coun­ters were at the very least part of a larger strat­egy. When Rea­gan wel­comed Fer­di­nand Mar­cos to the White House in 1982, for ex­am­ple, he was care­ful to speak of the his­tory of U.S.-Philip­pine friend­ship, “forged in shared his­tory and com­mon ideals.” He also praised the Philip­pine con­sti­tu­tion: “In­de­pen­dence, lib­erty, democ­racy, jus­tice, equal­ity . . . are en­graved in our con­sti­tu­tions and em­bod­ied in our peo­ples’ as­pi­ra­tions.”

In his fre­quent and markedly en­thu­si­as­tic com­ments about dic­ta­tors, we hear no such as­pi­ra­tional lan­guage from President Trump. His ad­mi­ra­tion for men who tor­ture and mur­der their op­po­nents con­tains no his­tor­i­cal or eth­i­cal nu­ance, no ref­er­ence to the­o­ret­i­cal ideals. Com­pare Rea­gan’s lan­guage in 1982 with Trump’s lan­guage a few weeks ago, when Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s bru­tal dic­ta­tor, vis­ited Washington. “I just want to let ev­ery­body know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much be­hind President Sissi,” he told the cam­eras. “He’s done a fan­tas­tic job in a very dif­fi­cult situation.”

Sissi has ar­rested tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, many of them tor­tured, many of them im­pris­oned for the “crime” of run­ning in­de­pen­dent char­i­ties or or­ga­ni­za­tions.

His bru­tal­ity is such that I’ve heard his pris­ons de­scribed as “fac­to­ries for the cre­ation of fu­ture Is­lamist fa­nat­ics.” His war on his peo­ple will in­crease in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. Yet Trump’s lan­guage was not just pos­i­tive but also per­son­al­ized. Sissi, he de­clared, has been “very close to me from the first time I met him.”

For Sissi, this en­counter was im­por­tant: It helped to so­lid­ify his au­thor­ity at home, jus­tify his bru­tal­ity and re­in­force his power. Trump’s con­grat­u­la­tory call to Turk­ish President Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan after he won (prob­a­bly through rig­ging the vote) a ref­er­en­dum giv­ing him dic­ta­to­rial pow­ers will help him en­force those, too. Trump’s White House in­vi­ta­tion to Ro­drigo Duterte, the Philip­pine president who has or­dered po­lice to shoot thou­sands of sus­pected drug deal­ers with­out ar­rest or trial, will have the same ef­fect: “You know, he’s very pop­u­lar in the Philip­pines,” said Trump. “He has a very high ap­proval rat­ing in the Philip­pines.”

None of this lav­ish praise has a strat­egy be­hind it. (In some cases, it may shore up the president’s busi­ness in­ter­ests. Trump has in­vest­ments in the Philip­pines, as well as Turkey, from which he de­rives undis­closed in­come; Duterte has al­ready sent Trump’s Manila busi­ness part­ner to be a spe­cial en­voy to the United States.) Nor is there ev­i­dence to sug­gest deeper di­plo­matic goals or some kind of clever game. In­stead, Trump’s ap­par­ent ad­mi­ra­tion for bizarre and cruel men such as Kim Jong Un — he called the North Korean dic­ta­tor a “smart cookie” whom he would be “hon­ored” to meet — is sim­ply con­sis­tent with his long-stand­ing prac­tice. He has will­ingly worked with cor­rupt and oth­er­wise un­sa­vory busi­ness part­ners in the past — he chose, for ex­am­ple, to part­ner with al­lies of Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps in the con­struc­tion of a mys­te­ri­ously empty luxury build­ing in Azer­bai­jan — and now he’s still do­ing it.

Be­cause Trump says so many out­ra­geous things ev­ery day, it’s easy to lose sight of just how dra­matic this shift in par­a­digm is go­ing to be and just how pro­found will be the con­se­quences on the ground. For 70 years, the United States has helped main­tain peace in much of the world thanks to a sys­tem of al­liances based on a com­mon be­lief in democ­racy. For the same pe­riod of time, Amer­i­can pres­i­dents have sup­ported those al­liances rhetor­i­cally as well as mil­i­tar­ily and eco­nom­i­cally, and the United States has prof­ited from that sup­port. Now that the U.S. president no longer dis­tin­guishes be­tween dic­ta­tors and democrats, ex­pect the for­mer to grow stronger and more vi­o­lent. Ex­pect demo­cratic al­liances to grow weaker. Ex­pect peace and pros­per­ity to di­min­ish.

Ex­pect peo­ple to look else­where for moral lead­er­ship. Dur­ing a tele­vised meet­ing with Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin this week, one Western leader pub­licly asked him to stop re­li­gious repression and the tor­ture of gay men in Rus­sian pris­ons. That’s the kind of lan­guage we were once ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing from the “leader of the free world” — and, of course, that’s the lan­guage we can ex­pect now only from the chan­cel­lor of Ger­many, An­gela Merkel.

Now that the U.S. president no longer dis­tin­guishes be­tween dic­ta­tors and democrats, ex­pect the for­mer to grow stronger and more vi­o­lent.


President Trump meets with Egyp­tian President Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi at the White House in April.

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