Trump to Dictators: Have a Nice Day

Posted June 19, 2018 7:51 p.m. EDT

Watching President Donald Trump recently accuse Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of stabbing him in the back prompted me to Google a simple question: How many Canadians were killed or wounded since April 2002 fighting alongside Americans in Afghanistan? The answer: 158 were killed and 635 wounded.

Think about that: America, not Canada, was attacked on 9/11. Nevertheless, our ally to the north sent thousands of its own young men and women to Afghanistan to help us destroy the forces of al-Qaida that attacked our cities — and 158 Canadians gave their lives in that endeavor.

And yet, when their prime minister mildly pushed back against demands to lower Canada’s tariffs on milk, cheese and yogurt from the U.S., Trump and his team — in a flash — accused Trudeau of “betrayal,” back-stabbing and deserving of a “special place in hell.”

That is truly sick.

But it tells you all you need to know about how differently Trump looks at the world from any of his predecessors — Republican or Democrat. Everything is a transaction: What have you done for ME today? The notion of America as the upholder of last resort of global rules and human rights — which occasionally forgoes small economic advantages to strengthen democratic societies so we can enjoy the much larger benefits of a world of healthy, free-market democracies — is over.

“Trump’s America does not care,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “It is unencumbered by historical memory. It recognizes no moral, political or strategic commitments. It feels free to pursue objectives without regard to the effect on allies or, for that matter, the world. It has no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself.”

Mind you, I can support Trump verbally cozying up to North Korea’s murderous dictator, Kim Jong Un, if it actually does reduce the prospects of war on the Korean Peninsula and lead to a process of denuclearization there.

But what’s terrifying about Trump is that he seems to prefer dictators to our democratic allies everywhere.

While this approach may buy us some time with North Korea, it is hurting us and our friends in many other places — because it’s being taken as a free pass for dictators everywhere not just to crush their revolutionaries or terrorists but even their most mild dissenters. It leaves no space for even loyal opposition.

Take Egypt. On May 31, Human Rights Watch reported that the Egyptian police had “carried out a wave of arrests of critics of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in dawn raids since early May 2018.” Those arrested included Hazem Abd al-Azim, a political activist; and Wael Abbas, a well-known journalist and rights defender; as well as Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon; Haitham Mohamadeen, a lawyer; Amal Fathy, an activist; and Shady Abu Zaid, a satirist.

I got to know some of these young people during the Arab Spring. They are not violent, radical Islamists. They are wonderful, peace-loving, rule-of-law-seeking Egyptians — eager to work with any Egyptian leader who wants to build a more open, tolerant, consensual Egyptian political and civil society. Harb, an enormously decent British-educated surgeon, was imprisoned merely for tweeting mild criticism of Sissi’s crackdown on dissent.

“The state of oppression in Egypt has sunk so low that el-Sissi’s forces are arresting well-recognized activists as they sleep, simply for speaking up,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The message is clear that criticism and even mild satire apparently earn Egyptians an immediate trip to prison.”

The same is true in Turkey today under the leadership of a real bum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I realized the other day that almost all my Turkish journalist friends had been either jailed, fired or exiled by the caliph-tyrant Erdogan.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated some hugely important efforts to diminish the control of hard-line Islamists in his country and empower its women. But the arbitrary, nontransparent way he has arrested and interrogated allegedly corrupt Saudi business leaders — and similarly 17 women driving activists — is contributing to a climate of fear there. This will undermine his efforts to attract the foreign and Saudi investments that are vital to the prince’s vision of reforming the Saudi economy.

“In America, we’re going to survive Trump,” says Michael Posner, director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU Stern. “We have strong institutions and plenty of people committed to maintaining our democratic processes. But places like Egypt, Turkey or the Philippines are fragile states where activists for decades relied on the U.S. to stand up and say, ‘There are consequences for your relations with the U.S. — trade, aid, military, investment — if you crush peaceful dissent.’ Today, we have a president who is not only not critical, he actually congratulates leaders on their fraudulent elections and seems to endorse their bad behavior.”

Remember: These leaders are not repressing violent radicals, Posner adds; they are literally “criminalizing dissent and debate.” And their citizens now think that we’re OK with that. If that stands, the world will eventually become a more dangerous place for all of us.

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