The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump again shows how easily he’s manipulated by dictators

President Trump meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images)

The paradox of President Trump, as I’ve noted before, is that he is both a supremely skilled con man — and a supremely gullible mark. He is notorious for acting on the advice of the last person he talked to. His credulity led him to overpay for investments time after time and helped to lead him into six corporate bankruptcies. Now he has gone from listening to fast-buck artists peddling get-rich-quick schemes to listening to dictators peddling fly-by-night geopolitical schemes.

In June 2017, after meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders in Riyadh, Trump announced his support for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, a U.S. ally that hosts a major U.S. air base. The blockade has predictably backfired. As the New York Times notes: “Qatar has beefed up its military, pursued deeper ties with neighbors like Iran, and doubled down on the maverick behavior that rankled its Arab neighbors in the first place, like breathlessly covering their scandals on its Al Jazeera satellite network.” (Hat tip to Ned Price for pointing out this example and others cited here.)

The next month, after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, Trump announced that the United States and Russia might form “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.” That laughable proposal faded away within 12 hours — only to be resurrected when Putin and Trump met in Helsinki in July 2018.

In December 2018, after talking on the telephone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump abruptly announced that he would pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, allowing the Turks to move in their own troops. This would have given Turkey a license to kill America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. After Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest, Trump backed down by deciding to keep at least some troops in Syria and warning the Turks against attacking the Kurds.

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This month, after talking with President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, Trump announced his de facto support for an offensive by Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter against the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which had previously been backed by the United States and the United Nations. This risks setting off a costly battle for Tripoli that will increase insecurity, empower terrorists and derail efforts to revive Libya’s economy.

Now, the New York Times reports that Trump, following a White House visit by Sissi, “is pushing to issue an order that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization.” This is a very bad idea for reasons elucidated by my Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor in early 2017 when this option was first discussed — and dropped.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a diffuse organization that has branches all over the Middle East. Some of the Brotherhood offshoots, such as Hamas, are clearly terrorist organizations and are already treated as such by the United States. But many others are peaceful political parties that are represented in the parliaments (and even the ruling coalitions) of U.S. allies such as Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait. Turkey and Qatar, both important U.S. allies, support the Brotherhood.

While the Brotherhood may be accused of promoting political extremism, it cannot be equated with organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that actually carry out acts of terrorism. (Trump recently and rightly designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization.) The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence, at least in theory. While the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy remains uncertain, there is a good case to be made that it’s better to co-opt relatively moderate Islamists rather than push them into the arms of terrorists. That is, in fact, the argument that Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi made before he was murdered by the Saudi regime. “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it,” he wrote.

Reasonable people can differ on the right policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood — just as they can differ on which faction the United States should back in Libya or what policy we should pursue in Syria. The real problem is that there is no policy process in the Trump administration to weigh the pros and cons. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins quotes a “former senior national-security official” saying that the policy “process has completely broken down” and “I don’t remember the last time there was a f---ing principals’ meeting.” Instead, foreign policy is made on Twitter after the president has heard from his favorite dictators.

Actually that’s slightly unfair. Trump does listen to one democratic leader: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who persuaded him to exit the Iranian nuclear deal, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But it’s hard to see how most of those decisions advance U.S. interests, either. The irony is that the “America First” president, far more than the “globalist” presidents he reviles, is a tool of foreign leaders who don’t have America’s best interests at heart.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Good news about Trump’s foreign policy: He persuades very few

Daniel Drezner: The tuning out of Donald Trump

The Post’s View: Trump is bent on wrecking NATO. Prepare for catastrophe.

Anne Applebaum: Trump hates the international organizations that are the basis of U.S. wealth, prosperity and military power

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump isn’t attacking NATO. He’s strengthening it.