The Corner


Dictators and Americans

Loujain al-Hathloul, now a Saudi political prisoner (Marieke Wijntjes / Handout via Reuters)

Yesterday, President Trump heaped praise on Mohammed bin Salman, the acting dictator, so to speak, of Saudi Arabia. When his father, King Salman, dies, he will be dictator outright (if all goes according to plan). Trump also shielded Mohammed from blame for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October. “He’s very angry about it,” Trump said. “He’s very unhappy about it.”

Is he? Other people, including investigators, think otherwise. I’m reminded of Trump’s reluctance to believe U.S. intelligence on the matter of the Kremlin’s interference in our 2016 election.

After hearing Trump, Senator Mitt Romney tweeted, “The President’s praise for MBS, the man who US intel says ordered or authorized the heinous murder of a WaPo columnist & Saudi dissident, sends the wrong message to the world. It’s past time for Congress & the administration to impose sanctions for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

A bit of advice: Don’t wait up nights.

Breakfasting with Mohammed bin Salman, Trump was effusive, saying, “It’s an honor to be with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia. And I think especially what you’ve done for women. I’m seeing what’s happening. It’s like a revolution in a very positive way.”

Trump continued, “I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you. You’ve done, really, a spectacular job.”

In recent months, Mohammed’s government has cracked down viciously on human-rights activists, and particularly women’s-rights activists. They have been tortured in the usual ways, and held in solitary confinement. This does not exclude pregnant prisoners and U.S.-Saudi dual citizens.

I wrote about one prisoner last month, after I interviewed her brother. The prisoner is Loujain al-Hathloul — her first name means “pearl,” incidentally — and her brother is Walid al-Hathloul. Loujain has been charged with an array of crimes, including contacting human-rights organizations and applying for a job at the U.N.

Let me quote from my article:

Of course, she has been tortured: electric-shocked, flogged, and so on. The torture has been overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He told Loujain, “I will kill you and cut you into pieces, but before I do it, I will rape you.”

This is what Walid al-Hathloul told an audience at the Oslo Freedom Forum this week. It is consistent with what we have long known about the Saudi justice system, such as it is.

For eight months, Walid and his family kept silent. They thought it was the best strategy to pursue. They went through all the prescribed channels. They appealed to the right ministries. Then they discovered that Loujain was being tortured anyway, so they decided to speak out, to draw attention to this case, one of many in their home country.

Probably the most prominent political prisoner in Saudi Arabia is Raif Badawi, who was publicly lashed. He has been imprisoned since 2012. His crime was to blog in favor of freedom, democracy, and human rights. I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, in 2016 (here). She is in exile, with their children, in Canada.

We Americans could make an issue of Raif Badawi, if we wanted to — of Loujain al-Hathloul and others as well.

Switch, now, to North Korea (a country that makes Saudi Arabia look practically Swiss). Before traveling there, President Trump had words about the border — the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea. “By the way,” he said, “when you talk about a wall, when you talk about a border, that’s what you call a border. Nobody goes through that border. Just about nobody. That’s called a real border.”

It is a hell of a border, yes. The president was right that “just about nobody” can get through it. But, in November 2017, someone did, amazingly. He was Oh Chong-song, a 25-year-old North Korean soldier, who made what many called a “dash for freedom.” Amid a hail of bullets — he was shot by his comrades five times — he dashed to the southern side, to Free Korea. He has since talked about life in North Korea, giving the usual eye-popping testimony. To see him, go here.

President Trump has granted Kim Jong-un an exalted platform, with these repeated summits and photo-ops. Let’s hope he will have something to show for it. Kim, remember, is a Communist dictator who presides over a gulag. Indeed, he presides over the most monstrous state on earth.

I often quote Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet-era dissident, who said something like this: “Free World leaders have to conduct business with tyrants, but, as they do, they should occasionally pause to ask, How will it look to the boys in the camps?”

When Reagan met with Gorbachev, he always handed the Soviet leader lists — lists of prisoners he was interested in. “Too many lists,” Gorbachev once complained. (To read Vladimir Kara-Murza on this subject, go here.) If Trump handed Putin a list, it might include the names of Oleg Sentsov, Alexei Pichugin, Yuri Dmitriev, Alexander Shpakov, and Oyub Titiev.

Yesterday, President Trump called Putin “a great guy,” “a good person,” and “a terrific person.” I disagree (except in the long-ago meaning of “terrific”). I think he is a dictator who invades foreign countries, sows chaos in democracies, and kills his critics, both on Russian soil and on foreign soil.

Trump has called Kim Jong-un “a great leader,” “very talented,” “very honorable,” etc. He has called Xi Jinping “a great guy,” “a terrific guy,” etc. (Xi, remember, presides over a gulag of his own, and the stories grow more horrifying by the day. In the future, no one will be able to say, credibly, “Oh, we didn’t know!”)

Only a few years ago, the conservative movement would have been repulsed by comments such as these. I am of that movement. It is possible to engage in necessary diplomacy with tyrants without showering them with praise. Without demoralizing their victims. Conservatives were repulsed by President Obama when he did “the wave” with Raúl Castro at a baseball game. That seems a thousand years ago.

Every day, I’m told that I am a dinosaur, a nostalgist, a relic. I am told this by the Trump-Orbán Right and by segments of the Left, and they are probably right. But, as a conservative, I’m not necessarily fazed by these charges. I don’t have the feeling that tomorrow belongs to me.

In an interview last week, Putin said that liberalism had become obsolete. By “liberalism,” he did not mean Oberlin College. He meant the Western way, the American way: the rule of law, the separation of powers, free enterprise, a free press, human rights, and so on. (What has recently been attacked as “David French-ism.”) Specifically, Putin said, “Every crime must have its punishment. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

Asked about Putin’s view of “Western-style liberalism,” President Trump talked about the political failures of Los Angeles and San Francisco. (See this article, for instance.)

In Budapest, Viktor Orbán is, of course, in accord with Putin. Last year, he proclaimed, “The era of liberal democracy is over.”

It may well be. These days, the strongmen are . . . well, strong. (Orbán was the only European leader to attend Erdogan’s latest inauguration in Turkey. Other attendees included Medvedev of Russia and Maduro of Venezuela.) The truth is, liberal democracy is something rare under the sun. People enjoy it only in parentheses, very brief. But it’s worth struggling to hang on to. And if people lose it in one age or place, it will be waiting for people in another. You can’t kill off these ideas. You can smother them for a while — even a good long time — but kill them, no. They will revive.


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