by Paul R. Pillar
President Trump was about as effusive in his public praise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as his guest could have hoped for when the two met at the White House this week. Sisi has “done a fantastic job,” declared Trump. Contrast this reception of a ruler who took power in a military coup and since then has imposed conspicuously harsh policies on the Egyptian population, with the markedly less friendly tone of Trump’s interactions with, say, the democratically elected leaders of allies such as Germany or Australia.
We know from other evidence that this administration is placing low value on human rights, and so we should not have expected that Sisi’s bad human rights record would have shaped the way the administration received him. But that does not explain the unnecessary ebullience of the reception. For that explanation, look to a couple of patterns in how Trump habitually responds to foreign governments—patterns of response that are not helpful to U.S. interests.
One pattern is that Trump takes a liking to leaders with a certain set of traits, which happen to be traits that Trump exhibits to a large degree himself. These include an inclination toward authoritarianism, an unrestrained and blunt way of speaking, heavy-handed policies toward adversaries, and a tendency to perceive many adversaries. It is this admiration for what resembles what Trump sees in the mirror that underlies much of his liking for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in addition to whatever other reasons underlie Trump’s soft spot for the Russian ruler. It also is one of the chief factors in shaping his posture toward Sisi, who, despite taking off the uniform and getting what passes for a mandate in heavily constrained elections, is essentially a military dictator.
The other pattern, which goes beyond personality and into policy, is to view policy consequences in very simple, first order terms, without considering other effects that are the least bit indirect or complicated. This is a matter of treating policy as an applause line. This Trumpian habit shows up repeatedly, such as in reducing an issue such as power plant emissions to nothing more than a matter of coal-mining jobs. Regarding Sisi, the dominant policy singled out for praise involves counterterrorism. The simplistic view is that Sisi comes down hard on bad guys, and that is viewed as good for counterterrorism.
But in fact Sisi’s policies have been bad for counterterrorism, as indicated by the rise in terrorism in Egypt during his rule. By bashing not just violent bad guys but also channels and representatives of many nonviolent ways of political expression, Sisi has lent credibility to the extremist message that only violence works. This has been especially true of, but not limited to, his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The harshness of his policies also has encouraged resentment and radicalization more generally.
Given the importance of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, Sisi’s policies and their endorsement by the U.S. administration are bad enough. The fact that the endorsement reflects a larger tendency by this administration makes it all the more disturbing.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.