“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” is oft-attributed — perhaps apocryphally — to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, referring privately to Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza or Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo, two US-friendly dictators who pillaged their nations and abused their populations until both were assassinated.
Washington has a history of setting aside democratic ideals in foreign policy when autocrats were perceived as best for US interests. What’s good for the American goose wasn’t always seen as good for the foreign gander. Consider the elected leaders the CIA helped topple and the bad hombres installed in the name of anticommunism in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, to name a few.
Those were done of course under heavy veils of secrecy and hypocrisy, and the bygone notion that democracy and human rights should take a back seat in our foreign policy-making isn’t something any post-Cold War US president would endorse or admit. That is — until now.
In the latest jaw-dropping installment of “Oh no he didn’t,” Donald Trump sent verbal valentines this week to the most sociopathic tyrants on earth. Meanwhile, his secretary of state said American values won’t be our guiding light if they get in the way of the bottom line. Take that, George Washington and you naive Founding Fathers.
First, Trump called North Korea’s maniacal Kim Jong Un — who runs forced-labor and starvation camps and reportedly was behind the assassination of his brother and uncle — a “smart cookie” whom Trump would be “honored” to meet.
Trump had a “very friendly” call with Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who bragged about personally murdering people and wishing he’d been “first in line” to gang-rape an Australian missionary. Philippine police and death squads have killed 7,000 people in a state-sanctioned drug war in Duterte’s first eight months in office, according to Human Rights Watch, and Trump wants to roll out a red carpet for him.
Trump has lavished praise on autocrats who’ve stifled the press, jailed opponents, and expanded absolute powers: China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. These bad-guy bro-crushes aren’t surprising if you paid attention during the campaign. Trump praised strongmen Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Khadafy, and others.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, putting “America First” means not promoting the American way abroad when “it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
That “doesn’t mean we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people. . . . But I think it is — I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values,” Tillerson told State Department employees Wednesday.
In other words, “freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people” are OK as long as they don’t interfere with important stuff like security and money, ka-ching!
Ironically, Tillerson’s comments came the same day 15 senators, led by Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote to Trump reminding him that the liberties extolled in the Declaration of Independence aren’t uniquely American. “Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe,” the senators wrote.
All credit to the senators for making their case, but I suspect it will fall on ears deaf to reason.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.