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Trump's embrace of petty dictators only empowers them Open in fullscreen

Imad K. Harb

Trump's embrace of petty dictators only empowers them

US President Donald Trump welcomes Egypt's President Sisi to the White House, April 3 2017[AFP]

Date of publication: 18 May, 2017

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Comment: While US foreign policy has never been averse to collaborating with authoritarian leaders, Trump's policy of rolling out the red carpet is unacceptable, writes Imad K. Harb.

A new and disturbing development in US politics has become a source of serious worry for observers of President Donald Trump: Coddling authoritarian leaders from around the world, singing their praises and welcoming them to White House.  

His latest invitation to the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the United States is a case in point. Duterte today presides over an extra-judicial, vigilante war on alleged drug dealers that has killed over 7,000 people since his inauguration last June.

Ignoring what could easily be classed as crimes against humanity in the Philippines, President Trump reportedly told its president that he was doing a "great job".

President Trump has accepted the "political reality" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. He also extended his acceptance to many other strongmen around the world. He praised Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi for doing a "fantastic job" despite the tens of thousands of political prisoners Sisi has in his jails.

Trump said North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un is a "smart cookie" and that he would be "honoured" to meet him. He considers Chinese President Xi Jinping a gentleman although China routinely jails journalists and dissidents.

Since his campaign, Trump has also declared his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin who has sidelined all opposition and the free press. He congratulated Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan on winning a referendum that is likely to strengthen his executive authority and further limit freedoms in the country.

While the United States has a shoddy history of befriending useful dictators, coddling authoritarians was never a proud practice in American foreign policy

While the United States has a shoddy history of befriending useful dictators, coddling authoritarians was never a proud practice in American foreign policy. Indeed, previous presidents considered foreign strongmen necessary evils, but did what they could to avoid them.

During his campaign and in his first few months in office, President Trump has played a different tune. Many of his supporters and detractors consider his overt embrace of dictators as a manifestation of his apparent frankness and openness. The truth, however, is much more complicated than that.

An important reason for this policy is the fact that, like strongmen in general, the president prefers a more direct decision-making process. This helps him avoid the complications of institutions, policy deliberations, formation of supportive alliances, and building consensus. This usually leads to issuing directives and delegating implementation to subordinates without having to study details or perform cost-benefit calculations.

This helps him avoid the complications of institutions, policy deliberations, formation of supportive alliances, and building consensus

Another reason is that the Trump Administration harbours an unhealthy antipathy to international human rights. The president's slogan "America First" is based on a nativist understanding that the United States has enough to worry about and should only care about its own wellbeing. The logical conclusion is that the oppressed around the world would do well to deal with their own oppression and change their conditions and political systems alone, and as they see fit.

  Read more: Trump's 100 days: Consistent militarism under a chaotic veneer

A third reason is the unfortunate and self-perpetuating reality of an administration woefully bereft of cadres and a strategic agenda. Setting that agenda will by necessity force a deep study of international conditions upon which America's national interests rest.

Thus, without the knowledgeable team of specialists in human rights and other issues, the administration is left wanting in basic information about rights abusers and violators.

Fourth, President Trump is personally lacking in the requisite curiosity about the world and prefers to adhere to what he knows. He is no avid reader, distrusts information that does not support his pre-determined views, and depends on sycophants who themselves are ignorant of the facts.

He is no avid reader, distrusts information that does not support his pre-determined views, and depends on sycophants who themselves are ignorant of the facts

Finally, the president and most of his administration officials do actually believe in the importance of law and order in the life of societies and communities. But they are under the false impression that when dictators enforce draconian laws and persecute dissenters, they are serving the public good and imposing order. Since the dictators' writ does not extend beyond their own borders, they are allowed to do what is deemed necessary.

The Trump Administration thus has forced a worrisome change in traditional American foreign policy. Said policy did contain serious examples of coddling unsavoury characters from Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. But previous American presidents usually tried to shy away from giving dictators the limelight at the White House.

It also seems that the days when a foreign strongman is vilified for abusing his powers are ending. Instead, he is publicly embraced either through an announcement by the American president or by an invitation to the White House. This is likely to encourage human rights abuses and to embolden rights violators.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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