There are plenty of items on the President’s schedule which have nothing to do with hurricanes or the debt limit and one of the upcoming events is a meeting in Washington with Najib Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Anyone who follows the news from that part of the world will know that Najib is a “controversial” figure at best. The Malaysian government has, for a long time now, been plagued with rumors and accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. Still, he’s getting an official greeting at the White House which will prove to be quite the feather in his cap back home.
Should such an “authoritarian” figure be feted in this fashion? The Washington Post editorial board was quick to denounce the meeting. (I know you’re surprised.)
PRESIDENT TRUMP has made a habit of embracing authoritarian rulers he regards as friendly, without regard for their subversion of democratic norms or gross human rights violations. Yet his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department…
With his White House invitation, Mr. Trump has neatly gotten Mr. Najib off that hook and provided him with what the regime will portray as a tacit pre-election endorsement. Despite his repression, Mr. Najib could use that sort of help: In the last election, in 2013, his party lost the popular vote and retained power only because of the gerrymandering of election districts.
Let’s just start off by noting that nothing the WaPo board is saying about Najib is incorrect. He’s clearly demonstrated tendencies toward corruption and the abuse of power to silence his critics, stifling trends toward an open democracy. America, being the world’s largest bastion of such values should be repelled by his actions.
With that said, it’s worth at least asking the editors at the Washington Post what in particular it is about Najib which drew their specific ire in this case. It’s not as if the U.S. relationship with his administration is particularly new or remarkable. The WaPo correctly notes themselves that Barack Obama not only went golfing with Najib, but was the first U.S. president to pay an official visit to that nation since early in the cold war era. (On a quick search I was unable to find the WaPo’s scathing denunciation of President Obama on those occasions, but perhaps I just missed it.)
But even more to the point, in the complex tapestry of foreign affairs that all presidents have to navigate, Najib is hardly unique among our supposed allies, nor is he even close to the worst of the bunch. I’ve railed here endlessly about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Tyrant of Turkey, yet Trump not only hosted him at the White House but has another official meeting scheduled with him this month in New York. When you look at the WaPo description of Najib as having, “imprisoned opponents, silenced critical media and reversed progress toward democracy” you really couldn’t have come up with a better description of Erdogan. Yet there was a lack of similar condemnation about the Turkish president.
Let’s crank up the volume to eleven on these comparisons and briefly mention Xi Jinping. Does anyone think that democracy is flourishing in China or that open dissent is tolerated and human rights abuses have been eradicated? China is one of the worst on all those scores. Yet they are a world power worthy of every U.S. diplomatic outreach and a partner in some of the most critical negotiations we engage in. Condemnation of the President working with Xi Jinping is essentially non-existent.
In the end, it’s hard to imagine that the Washington Post was doing anything more than looking for yet another excuse to attach the word “authoritarian” to a sentence with President Trump’s name in it. If you’re going to be critical of these sorts of meetings, let’s do so across the board and extend that criticism to every other President who’s had to engage in these distasteful displays for most of our history.