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Every US President Cozies Up to Dictators

Trump's praise of foreign strongmen is unusually effusive, but America has a long history of alliances with authoritarians.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz

On Saturday, during a "friendly" phone call about North Korea, Donald Trump invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House, a moved that stunned even Trump's own administration. Since Duterte won the election last year, he has become known mostly for his monstrous war on drugs, which has led to death squads reportedly killing thousands of people accused of being drug dealers or users. Duterte claims to have personally shot three men to death while cruising around on a motorcycle "looking for trouble." Oh, and Duterte has also compared himself to Hitler.


Trump has naturally come under fire for being on such friendly terms with Duterte. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told the New York Times that "by essentially endorsing Duterte's murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings." CNN's Jake Tapper pointed to Trump's fondness for Duterte and other dictators and said, "Equating brutality and despotism with leadership, that's not an American value."

But befriending dictators kind of is an American value. Though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just made headlines for saying that the US wouldn't worry about "values" when making alliances for the purpose of national security, America has been picking its allies based on geopolitical strategy rather than morality for a long, long time. While Trump's open praise for dictators is unusual and disconcerting, from a foreign-policy perspective, being nice to autocrats is one of the more normal things Trump has done as president.

In case you need it, here's a refresher on unlikely friendships from recent presidential history:

George W. Bush and Saudi Prince Abdullah

Those of you who remember Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 will recall the footage of George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi prince Abdullah and strolling through the White House garden. If Moore used that clip as an attempt to tie Bush to the Saudi bin Laden family, it doesn't work, but it is true that the Bush White House—among other administrations—tacitly approved of a regime that at the time was cracking down on women's rights and lopping off a lot of people's heads with swords. Abdullah himself later became king, in which capacity he oversaw the suppression of public protests and had at least one of his critics publicly flogged.


Lyndon Johnson and Brazilian President Artur da Costa e Silva

In the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson really didn't want Brazil, the biggest country in South America, to turn communist, so the CIA helped replace Brazil's leftist leadership with a military government by way of a coup. According to Human Rights Watch, that repressive regime arrested 50,000 people in its first months alone. When he was elected president three years later, Artur da Costa e Silva, one of the coup's leaders, visited the White House in 1967. Johnson proposed a toast to him during a luncheon: "Sir, we welcome you to this Capital and to this house. Know that as geography has made us neighbors, history and hope have made us friends."

John F. Kennedy and South Korea's Park Chung-Hee

One of South Korea's many cruel dictators was Park Chung-Hee (incidentally, the father of the recently ousted President Park Geun-hye). Park seized power by leading a military junta that purged the government of opposition and then declared that junta members wouldn't run for president, but ran anyway. Park was so notoriously brutal that he was reportedly gearing up to slaughter more than 100,000 protesters when his own intelligence chief intervened and shot him to death. Not that any of this made him an enemy of the US. President John F. Kennedy's statement about their meeting in 1961 said, "The President welcomed Chairman Park's full exposition of the current situation in the Republic of Korea and expressed his gratification at the many indications of progress made by the new Government of the Republic."

Ronald Reagan and Indonesia's Suharto

Suharto was president of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, during which time he encouraged numerous bloodthirsty communist-hunting death squads that slaughtered 500,000 people and put 750,000 in concentration camps. Machete-wielding death-squad leaders received high-level posts in Indonesia's government that they hold to this day. In 1982, Ronald Reagan invited Suharto to Washington, DC, for a state visit. The president toasted his guest at dinner, praising Suharto for his "wise and steadfast leadership." Reagan then got even more effusive, saying, "You will pardon me I hope, Mr. President, if I recognize here tonight what is already apparent to the nations of the world—that Indonesia, under your leadership, has assumed its rightful position as a great nation of Asia and of the world."


Barack Obama and a Bunch of People

The US habit of cozying up to oppressive regimes isn't limited to Republican presidents or a relic of the distant past. During his time as prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi oversaw crackdowns on Islam and press freedom as well the deadly suppression of widespread protests against election fraud. In 2012, Meles attended an anti-poverty summit for African leaders and received a shout-out from the podium from Barack Obama, followed by a round of applause from the crowd. Obama explained in his speech that honoring them was part of America's "moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition."

In 2010, Obama met with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a leader who tortured hundreds of his own people and kept tight control over the media until he was overthrown in 2011. He and Obama appeared to have a conversation that was polite, but not friendly—mostly about Israel and Palestine. "I am grateful to President Mubarak for his visit, for his willingness to work with us on these critical issues, and to help advance the interest of peace and prosperity around the world," Obama said. (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the strongman who now runs Egypt, was supported by the Obama administration and has been praised by Trump.)

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the prime minster of Thailand, just got a White House invitation from Trump. Last year, Chan-Ocha attended a summit for Asian leaders in California with Obama, and two years before that he seized power in a coup and essentially banned all criticism of his government. According to Obama, attendees focused on easing tensions in the South China Sea. "When [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity, and human dignity," he said.

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