Trump Isn’t the First President to Endorse Tyrants and Dictators

Published July 1st, 2019 - 07:32 GMT
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Rami Khoury / Albawaba / AFP

 

Hand-written letters of praise. A sly joke about kidnapping dissidents. Photo-opps with tyrants.

In the wake of the G-20 Summit and Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, images of Trump bantering with and praising some of the world’s most notorious dictators are sparking widespread anger.

“Trump embraces dictators and despots in deal-making G20 summit,” a CNN Analysis piece says, before arguing that Trump prefers negotiating with rulers untethered by democratic norms.


 

On his meeting with UN, the Washington Post laments, “Trump picked Kim Jong Un over the CIA. Is anyone surprised?” A short video of Trump nudging Saudi’s violently repressive crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s shoulder with the caption “buddies,” is going viral.

Trump’s jokes with Putin about disappearing journalists brings a wave of righteous indignation from the press.

And while Trump’s friendly interactions with tyrants may signify his disdain for democracy, liberty and human rights—values countries like the U.S. pride themselves on championing—he is not the first U.S. president to openly support such rulers.
 

while Trump’s friendly interactions with tyrants may signify his disdain for democracy, liberty and human rights—values countries like the U.S. pride themselves on championing—he is not the first U.S. president to openly support such rulers

His style may be more open and make for bad optics, but the president’s close alignment with dictators has been a mainstay of the U.S.’ foreign policy for decades. His actions constitute the norm, not the anomaly they are portrayed to be.


Trump and Mohammed bin Salman at the 2019 G20 Summit (AFP/FILE)

Before Trump lavished praise on Saudi’s Bin Salman (MbS), Obama did the same, providing the military support MbS needed to begin his horrific intervention into Yemen in 2015. Before Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan and Ford among other presidents all offered unconditional support to dictatorial regimes and genocidal death squads around the world.

For the U.S., it has formed a critical part of its outward posture towards the world. 
 

Bush, Clinton, Reagan and Ford among other presidents all offered unconditional support to dictatorial regimes and genocidal death squads around the world.

To frame Trump’s chumminess with dictators as uniquely immoral is an ahistorical misreading that does a disservice to the millions of civilians killed, displaced, or corralled under a regime with U.S. support.

Effectively tying Trump’s back-slapping friendliness with dictators to this tradition reveals the main difference between him and previous presidents. While they provided such support behind closed doors and with backchannels, Trump is simply saying the quiet part loudly.


Obama meeting with MbS in 2016 (AFP/FILE)

Former U.S. President Barack Obama may not have joyfully praised MbS’ leadership and played around with him at a G-20 Summit, but he did offer him a global platform to make his case as a ruler, in addition to supporting his disastrous war in Yemen.

When MbS ordered Saudi to invade Yemen, he relied on U.S.-manufactured jets, missiles and intelligence. To ensure Saudi’s blitzkrieg campaign was a success, U.S. planes continuously refueled Saudi warplanes mid-air, which enabled them to bomb targets without having to land.

In the summer of 2016, when it became clear the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen was stalling, MbS personally visited Obama at the White House for an hour-long talk.

"The president welcomed Saudi Arabia's commitment to concluding a political settlement of the conflict," the White House said in an official press release.
 

Trump is simply saying the quiet part loudly.

Three years since that meeting, the war in Yemen continues to drag on. Saudi’s strategy of besieging Yemen, blocking off its ports while obliterating its civilian infrastructure, has helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The U.S. continues to support Saudi militarily. Those initial refueling missions provided by the U.S. proved to be critical in obliterating Yemen’s water treatment facilities, farms, dams, hospitals and markets.

In fact, former presidents universally sided with Saudi from the moment the country was formed. 

Beyond Saudi, prior administrations routinely partnered with genocidal regimes, or manufactured their own to further U.S. interests.


Henry Kissinger, then-Secretary of State under Nixon, meets with Chile’s dictator, Pinochet (AFP/FILE)

Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both offered long-term support to Indonesia’s invasion and genocide of East Timor in the 1970s. Though estimates vary, many scholars contend that the genocide killed over 150,000 people, while some calculate that about 200,000 died.

Reagan’s friendly meetings with Suharto, Indonesia’s then-ruler who orchestrated the genocide, were not considered especially controversial, even if journalists were barred from attending their chats.

With each so-called ‘strategic partnership’ that furthered short-term U.S. interests to the detriment of human rights, friendly public meetings took place, where each party mingled and chatted with each other, much like how Trump handles such meetings in his presidency.

Reagan’s administration was notorious for organizing and supporting death squads in various Latin American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, Reagan’s team organized a ragtag group of counter-revolutionaries into a militia. With a seemingly endless stream of financing and training, the militia was able to wreak havoc throughout the country, brutally killing thousands of civilians during the 1980s.

That militia was called the ‘Contras.’

To help funnel their support to the Contras, the Reagan administration used Panamanian ruler  Manuel Noriega as an intermediary. Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush met with Noriega personally to discuss supporting the Contras, despite the fact that Noriega was a murderous drug kingpin.

Throughout the 1980s, Contra forces enacted a terror campaign on Nicaragua’s civilian population, systemically violating human rights in the process. 


Reagan with Indonesia’s ruler Suharto (Youtube)

There are countless other examples of the U.S. chumming it up with brutal rulers and groups, and they are well-known. Take Richard Nixon’s support of Chile’s Pinochet or Jimmy Carter supplying the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

These case studies are usually framed to argue that the U.S., rather than being a paradise for human rights, is a large empire seated in a brutal, global struggle for hegemony.

With each so-called ‘strategic partnership’ that furthered short-term U.S. interests to the detriment of human rights, friendly public meetings took place, where each party mingled and chatted with each other, much like how Trump handles such meetings in his presidency.
 

Engaging with and collaborating with dictators or human rights abusers is an integral part of U.S.’ statecraft ...

Engaging with and collaborating with dictators or human rights abusers is an integral part of U.S.’ statecraft, as indeed it is with most states.

If Trump were to be less personal and public about his relationship with these regimes, then he would no doubt face less heat over his actions, which in itself is a sign that the issue is being covered for the wrong reason.

What ought to spark the most moral outrage isn’t his superficial affection for dictators but his continuation of the decades-long tradition of siding with them in the first place, viewing them as critical strategic partners to be bolstered rather than murderous regimes to be rigorously critiqued.


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