Why Does Trump Like Dictators?

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Donald Trump likes dictators and likes to be liked by them. After meeting Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last week, Trump called Sisi "a fantastic guy," gushing, "he took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it." Trump approves of the unprecedented repression that followed Sisi's taking power, which includes extra-judicial killings, repression of civil society organizations, detention of tens of thousands and disappearances of hundreds. At Monday's debate Trump should be asked not only about his admiration for Sisi but also about how he would approach dissidents, lawyers and journalists imprisoned under the regimes he holds in high regard.

Not infrequently, American presidents must decide whether to confront foreign governments over the fate, sometimes even the life, of a dissident. The United States twice intervened to save the life of the South Korean dissident Kim Dae-jung while he was held by the dictatorship there, even though South Korea was an American ally. Three American presidents were involved: President Richard Nixon in 1973, and President Jimmy Carter and president-elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan made support for Soviet dissidents and refuseniks a central part of his policy toward the Soviet Union. One very public example of this came in 1988 when dined with nearly 100 dissidents and refuseniks at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

George H.W. Bush invited Fang Lizhi, the physicist who inspired Chinese students during the 1980s democracy movement to stay in the U.S. embassy as long as he liked after the June 1989 democracy massacre at Tiananmen Square. Fang and his wife, numbers one and two on the most wanted list after the crackdown, stayed for one year until his freedom was negotiated and he become a professor at the University of Arizona.

Trump should be asked under what circumstances he would cut ties with a dictator that had previously been allied with the United States. What does he think, for example, about Ronald Reagan's decision to withdraw support from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and support a transition to democracy?

South Korea is still an ally, but now its people live in freedom. In 1988, after decades of American support for the dictatorship, Reagan and his diplomats pressed for a democratic transition there. Can Trump foresee doing something similar in Egypt, or any other authoritarian regime?

These are not "gotcha" questions. Obviously, America conducts relations with undemocratic governments. However, anyone who wishes to lead the United States ought to know the record and be able speak intelligently about when to use America's leverage on behalf of democratic change, and on behalf of the individuals who risk even their lives to bring it about.

Thoughtlessly associating oneself with strong men reflects badly on the United States. It perplexes our closest allies, democracies on whom we rely for security and diplomatic backing. It is also meaningless without a strategy for advancing American interests. What does Trump believe he can accomplish with unqualified endorsement of undemocratic, brutal regimes?

Hearing Trump's comments about Sisi brought to mind the moving speech Kim Dae-jung delivered to a joint session of Congress in 1998 after he was elected president. Thanking those Americans "to whom my life is literally owed, Kim said, "I will never forget America and the destiny that so strongly ties my political life to your nation."

It was a magnanimous thing for Kim to say considering the long relationship the United States maintained with the dictatorship that persecuted him. It reveals his character and America's vital interest in defending the many activists and dissidents trying to gain freedom for their countries. Beyond that, it illustrates the unique and complex role the United States plays in the world and the demands it places on an American president.

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