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Trump’s Strongman Infatuation

Frida Ghitis comments [1] on Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for foreign authoritarian leaders:

Since taking office little more than 100 days ago, Trump has reversed course on countless issues, including major matters of foreign policy. But he has remained remarkably consistent in his praise of authoritarian leaders. It has become indisputable that respect for strongmen is a viscerally felt sentiment for the U.S. president, and one that will have major ramifications for American policy during this administration.

While Trump’s embrace of authoritarian and illiberal leaders is not the dramatic departure from past practice that it is sometimes made out to be, he does seem to make a point of endorsing and lauding these leaders. Trump has made a priority of inviting several of them to the White House in a very public display of approval within the first few months of taking office: Sisi, Erdogan, and now Duterte. The trouble isn’t just that he is cultivating closer ties with these leaders, but that he applauds and endorses their power-grabs and abuses along the way. That is, he isn’t simply overlooking their excesses in the name of pursuing cooperation on other issues, but positively approves of these leaders because of their illiberal and authoritarian practices. One reason for this may simply be that Trump fetishizes a crude idea of what “strong” government is, and therefore respects leaders that he deems to be “strong.” Another is that he seems to be personally in favor of illiberal and heavy-handed tactics, and admires other leaders that are able to use them with few or no constraints. Some of it may be nothing more than knee-jerk “anything but Obama” positioning.

Whatever the reason for it, this creates problems for the U.S. in a few ways. When the president is seen to be openly applauding abusive leaders and does so in no small part because they are abusive, that not only gives those particular leaders a green light to continue their abuses, but it signals to other clients and allies that they can do likewise without risking any rift with Washington. That makes the U.S. an enabler of current and future abuses, and it is bound to produce more hostility to the U.S. from the people that suffer them. That both mars our reputation and potentially makes new enemies that we wouldn’t have had otherwise, and that is being done in exchange for having close ties to unreliable security dependents that do little or nothing to make the U.S. more secure. There are sometimes necessary trade-offs in foreign policy, but at the moment the administration is sucking up to abusive leaders without even reaping any discernible benefits.

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9 Comments To "Trump’s Strongman Infatuation"

#1 Comment By collin On May 4, 2017 @ 10:45 am

I am left what is the difference of Obama versus Trump here other than Trump seems to embrace these leaders and Obama sort quietly did little to embrace or pushback on these leaders. (And isn’t that a big difference of their Presidency. Obama 2nd term did a lot under the radar stuff while Trump is headlines.) And I don’t mind that Trump has conversations with these leaders on a regular basis.

#2 Comment By Tom S On May 4, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

It could also be Trump projecting on how he’d actually prefer to rule.

#3 Comment By victory over eurasia On May 4, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

@colin – that sort of magical thinking is why the orange buffoon is now president. The idea that Obama and Trump are interchangeable is so profoundly misguided, and in now way reflects a nuanced engagement with the world, and a clear articulation of our values, versus the tawdry embrace of the very worst, a public discarding of our values in our global relations (per Sec. Tillerson), and endless and grotesque peculation and corruption, aping the very strongmen that he embraces

There is no doubt that Pres. Obama did things we might not always support, and no doubt he had to engage w tawdry, corrupt, and unpleasant, but he maintained the interests of our country as he, as president saw it, and he was able to articulate, debate, and defend his views. The orange buffoon appears to be gullible, easily duped, weak-willed, endlessly greedy, self-aggrandising, illiterate and operating at a sub-5th grade level.

So no, I would disagree that there is little difference between the two…..

#4 Comment By CJ On May 4, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

The difference, as Mr. Larison points out, is that Trump has explicitly praised their illiberal actions. For instance, he congratulated Erdogan on winning the referendum that effectively made him dictator for life.

Other presidents have embraced tyrants in spite of their flaws. Trump appears to embrace them because of their flaws.

#5 Comment By Uncle Billy On May 4, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

Americans like to think that we can help remake other countries in our own image. That we can install “Democracy” in various third world countries.

We cannot make places like Turkey, Syria, Russia, or the Philippines into our 51st State. There are no Syrian or Turkish Thomas Jeffersons lurking in the shadows, ready to leap out and install Democracy.

In most Middle Eastern Countries, there appears to be a choice between Islamic fanatics and thuggish generals. I have yet to see an Islamic James Madison in charge. So what to do? Well, first do NOT do anything to assist Islamic fanatics. If we have to go with a thug general, so be it. We go with the party who hates us the least. None of them really like us and we are fools if we think they do.

#6 Comment By walden On May 4, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

Agree with Collin. Also, surely this “invitation” arises because the U.S. is all worried that the Philippines under Duterte may slip the leash. Broadening its ties with China? Horrors!

Not sure if the U.S. can do regime change because Duterte remains popular. But I’d bet that is Plan B if he doesn’t soon fall into line with the “exceptional nation”.

#7 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On May 4, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

There’s a distinction between “correct” and “friendly” relations. Perhaps it should apply here.

“Human rights” concerns have so often been a cover for ill-starred interventions that did more harm than good, and have been applied so inconsistently (Iran ban, Saudi Arabia good) that I would leave them out.

That doesn’t mean we have to be effusive with the likes of Sisi and Duterte, let alone little Kim. That’s the principal mistake, though. As long as they don’t attack us, I’d generally stay out of others’ internal affairs.

#8 Comment By rayray On May 4, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

The fact is that Trump is, by temperament, ignorant, vain and cruel. He is your classic fascist personality. He likes Duterte not because Duterte is effective, but because Duterte does what he does, effective or not, in the most bluntly vicious way imaginable.

It’s like sweeping up your kitchen floor with a blowtorch. It’s stupid, hardly the most effective way, people will get hurt unnecessarily, but there’s a certain kind of adolescent boy that thinks that’s the fun way to do it.

#9 Comment By Donald On May 5, 2017 @ 9:04 am

I agree with the post. Trump embraces these people because he likes their brutality.

But I also agree that the difference with past administrations can be exaggerated. For instance, Obama’s State Department spokesman ( I forgot his name) is on several YouTube tapes arguing with a Russian journalist about Yemen. In one of them he says that Russian bombing in Syria was deliberately brutal in its attacks on civilians and that this was not the case with the Saudis in Yemen. This was false and amounted to a green light for more Saudi bombing of civilians. That is a fairly typical example of past US behavior. Trump is worse in that he seems to openly embrace the brutality, but again, the difference can be and often is exaggerated.