Loving Dictators Is as American as Apple Pie

Trump has embraced yet another strongman, this time in Libya. But it’s not just a personal failing—it’s a national tradition.

Donald Trump speaks at the NRA-ILA's Leadership Forum at the 146th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 28, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Donald Trump speaks at the NRA-ILA's Leadership Forum at the 146th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 28, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last week, the White House released its readout of a call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan commander currently engaged in a violent effort to seize Tripoli and overthrow the internationally recognized government there. During their conversation, the two spoke about “the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” and the president “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and … discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” It amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.

U.S. policy had previously been to support the Libyan government that Haftar has been seeking to depose. Indeed, just a week before the phone call—which took place on April 15 but was not revealed until April 19—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again said that there was no military solution to Libya’s crisis. The entire episode reinforced the impression that Trump has broken the foreign-policy process and replaced it with presidential whim. And yet Trump’s support for Libya’s would-be strongman is perfectly consistent with the president’s own track record—and past U.S. practice.

In November 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick—who at the time was a professor at Georgetown University and later became President Ronald Reagan’s first permanent representative to the United Nations—wrote an article in Commentary magazine titled “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” In it, she argued that the United States had become too passive in the world. In Kirkpatrick’s view, the Carter administration had accepted the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and the Shah of Iran because of a belief that the changes underway in these societies were a result of the historical forces of modernization that the United States could not control. There was also a desire on the part of U.S. officials, she averred, to avoid being on the “wrong side of history.”

The article laid out a case against a credulous U.S. president who willingly accepted the commitments of revolutionary movements—like the Sandinistas—to forge more just political and economic systems, downplaying the threat these groups posed to American interests given their links to the Soviet Union. Nestled within the apparent naiveté of the Carter administration was, according to Kirkpatrick, a pernicious double standard: When reliable, albeit authoritarian, allies confronted popular opposition, the United States at first pressured them to reform in midst of a crisis and then effectively abandoned them—delivering once-allied countries into the hands of anti-American authoritarians, which President Jimmy Carter and his advisors accepted as the inevitable result of modernization.

Kirkpatrick’s policy prescriptions were straightforward: Ignore modernization theories, which had been discredited among academics, if not policymakers, and recognize that the Soviets were behind many of the revolutionary movements of the developing world. The Sandinistas were not part of some historical process of modernization, but rather Moscow’s machinations, and thus must be opposed. Finally, and most relevant to Trump’s recent phone call with Haftar, she argued that U.S.-friendly dictators may have shortcomings, but they deserve Washington’s support because they “are more compatible with U.S. interests.” She also pointed out that pro-American authoritarians were more susceptible to reform than the revolutionary movements the Soviet Union (and American liberals) championed. Kirkpatrick cited Brazil, Argentina, and Chile as examples, though events long after her death in 2006—especially in the Middle East—would likely have dimmed her optimism.

In a testament to the continuing influence of “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” there are echoes of Kirkpatrick’s argument in critiques of then-President Barack Obama’s handling of the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 and, whether intentional or not, Trump’s apparent decision to side with Haftar in Libya. Like the president Kirkpatrick served, Trump came into office with a few basic ideas about the world that should now be familiar to everyone: China is not to be trusted, U.S. allies are taking advantage of the United States, immigrants undermine society’s cohesion, order is more important than rights, and Islam and its followers are inclined towards violence. This worldview has led the president to embrace leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and now Haftar. In this self-styled field marshal whose forces were badly beaten by Chadians in Toyota pickup trucks three decades ago, Trump sees someone who will kill Islamists—whether from the Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood, keep the oil flowing while the U.S. administration attempts to choke off Iranian exports, and bring stability to Libya.

For Trump, Haftar and the others may be bastards, but at least they are—or proclaim to be—America’s bastards. In contrast are the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, strongmen who refuse to be part of a broad American alliance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There are outliers to this binary world, of course. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went from being at the top of Trump’s hit list to a summit partner without altering Pyongyang’s nuclear policies. And then there are the president’s personal relationships with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of which are reported to be positive, even though the first two rule over global competitors of the United States and the third—an ostensible U.S. ally—has sought to undermine U.S. policy in the Middle East. All three regard a U.S.-led global order to be contrary to their interests, but there is nevertheless a back-slapping, fist-bumping quality to Trump’s interactions with the Chinese, Russian, and Turkish leaders.

It is true that America’s current relationships with authoritarians seems like a Trump innovation, but as Kirkpatrick advocated, and Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama demonstrated, supporting and working with authoritarians is not all that unusual. Before there was Duterte, there was Ferdinand Marcos; before there was Sisi, there was Hosni Mubarak; before Mohammed bin Salman there were his uncles; and before Haftar there was Muammar al-Qaddafi. One can debate whether these relationships were worth it in terms of achieving U.S. interests, but Washington’s ties with authoritarians were and are robust. Trump’s approach to strongmen just seems particularly perverse because this is an era in which democracy is in retreat, and the president of the United States is championing those most responsible for it.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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