- By Daniel BenaimDaniel Benaim is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Middle East advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Follow him on Twitter:@danielbenaim.
President Donald Trump’s opening moves on the world stage have left behind a trail of offended U.S. allies. From Germany (handshake and mutual defense commitment snubs) to South Korea (missile defense shakedown) to Australia (berating phone call), the president’s diplomatic forays have at times felt like outtakes from Curb Your Enthusiasm. In Europe last week, he sought to undo some of the damage.
But what if the most dangerous part of Trump’s foreign policy turns out to be the meetings where the leader across the table isn’t offended?
While many of America’s democratic friends are reeling, another group of U.S. partners is visibly delighted, a fact that was on display as Poland’s hard-right government bused in supporters for Trump’s speech. In a few short months, autocrats and elected illiberal hardliners, from Manila to Riyadh to Warsaw, are already leaping at the opportunity to pursue their most repressive, destabilizing actions — from dream projects to impulse buys — without the pushback they might have expected from any previous U.S. president.
In fact, we may be seeing the first signs of a “Trump bump” under which, meeting by meeting, call by call, he is empowering dictators, hardliners, and demagogic opportunists, leaving behind a more repressive and less stable world. Leaders appear to be leaving conversations with Trump feeling greenlit to act aggressively against their own people or their neighbors.
As Trump returns from European meetings with the illiberal leaders of Poland, Russia, and other nations — and as his team trumpets initiatives on Syria, energy, and other issues, it is sobering to consider the rocky aftermath of the previous splashy international speech, which he gave in the Middle East.
Less than two months ago in Riyadh, Trump spoke and posed alongside Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi , their three faces aglow with optimism. Trump had “united the entire Muslim world,” a top White House official said. Unlike in Europe, where Trump faced pushback, his Saudi Arabian sojourn included warm meetings with his Saudi hosts and the rulers of the Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and even Qatar, among other nations.
The “orb” photo was instantly iconic. But what happened next hasn’t gotten enough scrutiny.
Just four days later in Bahrain, police arrested 286 protestors and killed five people staging a sit-in protest in the home village of the country’s top dissident cleric. President Barack Obama had painstakingly sought to coax Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority to reconcile with the country’s roiling Shiite communities before the host of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet descended into civil unrest or Iranian-backed insurgency. In Riyadh, Trump told Bahrain’s king, “[T]here has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration.” Message received.
In Egypt, within 96 hours of the orb photo, police had locked up a rival presidential candidate and blocked dozens of websites, including Egypt’s most prominent investigative journalism project. For six months, Sisi had held off on signing a draconian NGO law passed by Egypt’s parliament targeting independent civil society. Human rights champions from Cairo to the U.S. Senate urged him not to sign. Eight days after meeting Trump, Sisi signed the bill into law. As Declan Walsh wrote in the New York Times, “Sisi has appeared emboldened by a burgeoning friendship with President Trump, who has hailed the Egyptian strongman as a ‘fantastic guy.’” Notably, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, expressed disappointment. But the White House’s silence spoke even louder. The enabler-in-chief had struck again.
Perhaps the most complex and potentially damaging aftermath of the orb moment has been the feud between America’s Arab partners in the Persian Gulf. On June 5, four of the leaders who had taken the measure of Trump in Riyadh (from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), emboldened by his uncritical embrace, launched an embargo against Qatar, which hosts U.S. Central Command. Many U.S. officials share some of the blockaders’ frustrations with Qatar — along with a hope that several Gulf nations can meet a higher standard on combating terrorist financing and extremist ideology. But the feud is already distracting U.S. partners from the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and efforts to push back against Iran —Trump’s top priorities — and creating a long-term risk to U.S. force posture as key U.S. military hosts blockade each another. The secretaries of state and defense have been calling for restraint and a speedy resolution. But not the enabler-in-chief. In a region of strongmen, where several days of painstaking Cabinet-level diplomacy is no match for 140 characters from the president on Twitter, Trump has repeatedly egged on the blockaders.
The trend isn’t limited to the Middle East. In a leaked phone transcript, Trump reportedly told Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte — who has bragged about personally engaging in extrajudicial killings, among the thousands his forces have reportedly committed — “what a great job you are doing,” and “we had a previous president who did not understand that.” Four weeks later — in the face of a growing terrorist threat, admittedly — Duterte declared sweeping martial law over several islands (and joked that his soldiers would enjoy impunity for rape).
The risks are real and pervasive. As Central and Eastern Europeans struggle, country by country, to preserve liberal values and beat back demagoguery and corruption, how many more Trump greenlights will leaders carry home with them? In Poland, protestors managed to stave off the far-right government’s proposed restrictions on media coverage of Parliament last December. Will Trump’s blessing — and his own public trashing of America’s media while on Polish soil — embolden the government to renew its assault on Poland’s free press?
Trump’s travels are not all that raise concerns. Tillerson warned State Department staff to downplay U.S. values and skipped the release of the department’s annual human rights report. Listening only to Trump, one might conclude that Cuba and Iran are the world’s only human rights abusers. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad barely made the list for public censure until he dropped a weapon of mass destruction on his own people — again. Trump treats human rights as a cudgel to bash and burden adversaries rather than ideals to be upheld by all. And other countries listen closely. Sometimes foreign leaders hear more clearly than Americans do the true, bottom-line messages that the United States is sending.
In fairness, as candidate Trump often noted, today’s Middle East — “a mess” — reflects his predecessors’ failures to make good on their own ambitious agendas for rights, reform, or even diplomatic restraint. Leaders like Duterte, Salman, and Sisi proved willing to do what they felt their survival required and defy Obama, and President George W. Bush before him, despite their public and private reproaches. The near-term costs of raising these difficult issues are real (as are the greater costs of abandoning values). The pursuit can be frustrating and too often inconsistent in practice. And the Obama administration is not immune from the same criticism for responding to repression with mixed messages.
These are early days, but it’s already clear that Trump represents something altogether different. And without American leadership to exact even limited reputational or diplomatic costs, the story of the orb and its aftermath will become a regrettable pattern, as autocrats increasingly perceive a green light. That’s bad news. While Trump may win plaudits from strongmen, the societies beneath them will not stay cryogenically frozen. Their repression will ensure brittle U.S. partners prone to crack into instability and less able to share burdens. And their populations will remember the U.S. president with whose blessing their leaders sought to crush them.
The truth is that the chance to repair frayed relationships with Middle Eastern partners does present opportunities for a new U.S. president. Each of these leaders faces real threats that merit U.S. support. But Trump seems determined to ask for almost nothing of value in return.
Most troubling of all is the prospect that Russian President Vladimir Putin left his meeting with Trump feeling as emboldened as the orb-mates seemingly did. Reports suggest that Trump and Putin agreed to disagree on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election (hint: it did!), but there’s little suggestion that Trump imposed any concrete costs whatsoever for past or future assaults on American democracy.
As a private citizen, Trump famously quipped, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” As president, he seems to be extending the same impunity to autocrats and hardliners overseas.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images