As President Trump continues to reach out to the world's despots — praising the "fantastic job" done by Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; saying he would be "honored" to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong-un; inviting death squad promoter and Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House; congratulating Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on maintaining rule; and nurturing a bromance with Russia's Vladimir Putin — he would do well to keep in mind their perennial tricks for manipulating western governments.
One is hostage-taking: They arrest a westerner on bogus charges and then demand concessions in exchange for her or his release. Mr. Kim is a pro at this. At least three Americans are currently being held by North Korea in the hopes of gaining diplomatic leverage, including college student Otto F. Warmbier, who last year was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for, the country claimed, trying to steal a political banner.
It appears President Trump has already fallen victim to this ploy. He gave Egypt's el-Sisi a valuable photo opp, reportedly to secure the release of American Aya Hijazi and her husband, who'd been held for three years in a hellish Egyptian prison for the crime of founding a non-profit to help homeless children. During the Obama administration, Egypt went so far as to imprison the son of a U.S. cabinet member.
Another trick is trying to persuade the U.S. that we must choose between the despots and radical Islamists. Syrian President Bashar Assad has long tried to shift the focus away from his atrocities to those committed by ISIS, and Mr. Trump appeared to have bought it — at least initially. "Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS," Mr. Trump said in his first interview after winning the election. And his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said last month that the U.S. had no plans to remove Mr. Assad; of course, that was a few days before the Syrian ruler killed dozens of people, including children, with a chemical weapons strike, leading President Trump to retaliate with missile strikes.
"Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically," the president said after ordering this strikes. A few days later, however, Mr. Assad resumed his bombing of civilians.
Egypt's General el-Sisi has also played the ISIS card, though he's largely responsible for their rise. He outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and jailed virtually its entire leadership, even though the Islamist organization had long "rejected violence as a matter of official policy and opposed al-Qa'ida and ISIS," according to CIA analysts. Egypt now has a plethora of far more extreme groups who believe the Brotherhood's fate proves that peaceful change is impossible. The Palm Sunday bombings of Coptic Christian churches is just the latest example of this radicalization. The repression accompanying General el-Sisi's war on these groups, along with Egypt's corruption and high unemployment, are radicalizing a whole generation. And with Egypt having millions of young men despairing of their ability to support a family, that should worry us deeply.
A variant on that theme is playing the Iran card. Checking Iranian influence is the rationale for supporting a cruel and incompetent regime in Yemen that largely abandoned the fight against al-Qaida.
We see the same ploy, heart-breakingly, in Bahrain, where the Trump administration lifted human rights conditions on arms sales to the brutal Sunni monarchy there, which has long repressed the majority Shi'ite people, denying them democratic rights and obstructing their path to education and good jobs. The ruling regime claimed those calls for democracy were Iranian-inspired and brought in Saudi troops to shoot down demonstrators and arrest and torture detractors. With all peaceful avenues for change, as well as economic opportunity, closed off, we should not be surprised by press reports that some frustrated Shi'ites are turning to Iran, and potentially to violence.
The despots' final trick is patience. Egypt's military waited more than two years after a popular uprising ousted former President Hosni Mubarak before launching its coup. Syria's Assad is clearly betting that our attention will shift elsewhere.
Over the years, Libya, Syria and Yemen had plenty of secular and moderate Islamic leaders eager to build democracy, but we stood by as those countries' dictators slaughtered them. Not surprisingly, they were replaced by hardened militants who never trusted democratic means and stayed alive by avoiding peaceful demonstrations. The same is increasingly true in Egypt and Bahrain.
The only reliable allies we will find in the region, and the only governments that will be strong enough to make a stable peace with Israel, are democratic governments with broad support from their people. The future democratic leaders of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and other countries in the region are likely found today in those countries' jails. When they are released and ultimately come to power, they will not forget this country's support for their tormenters.