Najib Razak’s Muddled Mid-East Policy–Sheer Hypocrisy


December 16, 2017

Najib Razak’s Muddled Mid-East Policy–Sheer Hypocrisy

by Mat Sabu@www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT | On December 13, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, in his own words, dropped everything on his lap, including a meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, to attend the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey.

The goal was to register the Muslim world’s urgency and protest against the recognition of Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Israel.” The OIC meeting was hopeless for several reasons.

First, Najib had already affirmed to the rest of the world, that US President Donald Trump is his golfing buddy and his friend.

In his trip to Washington in September 2017, Najib even boasted that Trump personally sent him to his official car, of all places in the basement of the White House.

The above is not hearsay. It came right from the horse’s mouth: Najib. It was Najib who showcased his tight bond with Trump.

 

 

Secondly, directly or indirectly, this has strengthened Trump’s resolve to gift Jerusalem to Israel. The false step by Najib is no less damning than the mistakes of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.

Both the father and son praised Trump as a world-class leader when Trump made a trip to Saudi Arabia. Emboldened by his relationship with King Salman and MBS, Trump went one step ahead of the duo.

He immediately flew to Israel, and promised a radical change in the US policy on the Middle East. Such a radical change was, of course, the gift of Jerusalem to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo), whose popularity was not only sagging in Israel, but is also widely considered a dishonest and ineffective Israeli leader.

 

Second, Najib flew to Istanbul to join a chorus of leaders to admonish and reprimand Trump. But was that really the case?

The US Ambassador to Malaysia was not summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office nor Wisma Putra for a thorough dressing down. Even when the UMNO Assembly was ongoing, little attention was granted to the injustice of Trump.

Third, in a press release by Wisma Putra, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs merely affirmed that Trump should “reconsider his decision.” Wisma Putra did not express its vehemence against Trump.

Fourth, instead, it was the opposition front that raised a huge outcry on Trump’s utter betrayal to the Palestinians.

To the credit of Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, she saw the betrayal as sufficiently serious to call for the possible boycott of US goods and services in Malaysia.

 

Fifth, Pakatan Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad (photo),  together with Amanah and Bersatu, challenged the whole treasonous act of giving Jerusalem to Israel when there are 86 countries, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, that do not agree with Trump. Even Pope Francis of the Vatican Council was against Trump wholesale.

Thus, what is the point of flying to Istanbul to block the proverbial horses that have been let out of the stable? Trump has betrayed the Muslim world not once, but from the very beginning of his presidency. He has passed the Middle East policy to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who is a known Zionist.

Sixth, it shocking that UMNO and PAS still support Trump by not voicing out more openly, and by coming up with a series of measures to put a stop to this madness.

Fortunately, the 14th general election is just months away. Christians and Muslims, indeed all groups and races that are anti-Israel, can set things right: by voting out Najib, PAS and, indeed, UMNO, for coddling the Zionist conspiracy.

Malaysian foreign policy has never seen such a disaster until now. It is time to correct it with a new government that is not beholden to US Zionist policy.


MOHAMAD SABU is president of Amanah. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Malaysia’s Chickenhawk Defense Minister’s Empty Talk On Jerusalem Issue


December 15, 2017

Malaysia’s Chickenhawk Defense Minister’s Empty Talk On Jerusalem Issue

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

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“A soldier is someone’s son or father or brother,” he said. “The public has a right to know where we are sending our soldiers and why.”–– Mohd Arshad Raji, retired Brigadier-General

COMMENT | Chickenhawk politicians are usually extremely gung-ho about military action, especially when nobody holds them accountable for their words. Kudos to Rais Hussin and P Ramasamy for calling out Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on his extremely cavalier reminder that the Malaysian security apparatus is ready for action when it comes to the Jerusalem issue.

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Malaysia’s Chickenhawk  Defense Minister –Hishamuddin Hussein Onn

I wonder what would have happened that if instead of international mockery, someone took up Malaysia’s preparedness to send troops to Jerusalem? What would have been the response then? Would we have backtracked and attempted to explain that in Malaysia, establishment politicians can say anything they want but they cannot be held accountable for what they say?>

On the other hand, maybe what the current UMNO grand poohbah said in his big meet-up in Istanbul with other concerned Muslim potentates that US investments trumps any real action to go with that outrage, is a more acceptable solution? And let us not forget the ever-reliable strategy of dragging the United Nations to voice out whatever grievances that Muslim potentates claim on behalf of Palestinians.

In other words, the Defence Minister’s words were just more empty talk to burnish Malaysia’s increasingly joked about Islamic preoccupations on the world stage. No doubt whatever we learned from whatever we were doing in Saudi Arabia would have come in handy if we decided to ship our lads to Israel. Speaking of what we learned in Saudi Arabia, I am still unclear as to why we were there in the first place.

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22 members of Malaysian Armed Forces receiving their certificates and medals from Saudi Government for services rendered during  Ops Yeman since May, 2015.

In 2015, Arab News, under the chest thumping headline, ‘Malaysian troops join Arab coalition’, claimed that – “Malaysia has become the 12th country to join the coalition after Senegal which is sending 2,100 troops to fight the Houthis and the forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Ministry of Defence explained that the coalition’s operations centre is preparing for incorporating the Malaysian and Senegalese forces into the ranks and determining the nature of tasks assigned to them.”

Now, of course, under questioning by Amanah, among others, we are told by the Defense Minister that all we were doing there, besides “learning” that is, was evacuating Malaysians who were in Yemen. Why we need to “join a coalition” and send troops to evacuate Malaysian citizens when there are so many other less controversial and effective means of evacuation is beyond me.

Amanah, of course, loses points because one of their predictable concerns was that the presence of Malaysians troops there is awkward “because Western powers such as France and Britain were also present. These countries, the opposition party said, had anti-Islam policies” – which is dumb because thousands of Yemeni Muslims are butchered by another Muslim country.

A learning expedition

Of course, ever since the House of Saud got entangled in the 1MDB fiasco, Malaysia seems to have become extremely chummy with the Kingdom. Indeed, not only was the visit by the Saudi monarch memorable for reasons, which is beyond the scope of this piece but which I have documented elsewhere, we even managed to foil an assassination attempt allegedly planned by Yemeni operatives.

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As reported in The Independent, Malaysia foils ‘Yemeni attack’ on Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’ – “Malaysian police said they foiled an attack on Arab royals by suspected Yemeni militants.

“Seven militants, including four Yemenis, two Malaysians and one Indonesian, were arrested in separate raids ahead of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s visit to Kuala Lumpur…

“‘They were planning to attack Arab royalties during their visit to Kuala Lumpur. We got them in the nick of time,’ National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters.”

To our former IGP, getting terrorists in the nick of time is not something you want to be proud about and certainly not something you publicise. Now of course, if people who are at war with the House of Saud realised that we were in the kingdom not as allies but merely “learning” and evacuating citizens, they would be more inclined not to view citizens of where they were planning their attacks as collateral damage. And please note, a Malaysian citizen was also part of the kill team.

With this Jerusalem move, Al-Qaeda has called upon all Muslim nations to destroy Israel and this only makes it more complicated when we have citizens in this country who support these Islamic extremists for various reasons.

The United Nations has reported on the human rights violations that have been carried out by Saudi forces (and their allies) – which they deny – but of course, Malaysia only response that it was in fact only there on a learning expedition. Now how do you think this sounds to a demographic of disenfranchised Muslim Malaysian youths who seem to be ripe for radicalisation?

Already the plight of the Yemeni people has gained traction among a certain crowd of tech-savvy youths all over the Muslim world who blame the House of Saud for perpetrating crimes on innocent Muslims.

Way back in 2014, Harezt ran an interesting piece on why the Islamic State was not too interested in attacking Israel – “The Islamic State’s target bank contains a long list of Arab leaders – including the Saudi and Jordanian kings, the Prime Minister of Iraq, the president of Egypt and even the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood – before it gets to the Jews and Israel.”

So, while Jerusalem may not exactly be the issue that ignites Islamic radicalisation in this country, the alleged atrocities committed by the House of Saud and their allies, which includes Western powers and their Muslim proxies, may be ripe soft targets for radicalised Muslim youths who benefit from organisations like Islamic State who have declared Southeast Asia as their new theatre of war and destruction.

Now, I am not saying that Malaysia has troops fighting in Yemen – I have no evidence of this – I am just saying that for radicalised Muslim youths in the region latching on to the plight of the Yemenis, it will not make a difference.

Trump’s Jerusalem Rationale and its Consequences


December 14, 2015

Trump’s Jerusalem Rationale and its Consequences

The US administration seems to believe that Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments are so concerned with the perceived Iranian threat that they will put aside their long-standing hostility toward Israel. The problem is that the new Saudi crown prince’s highest priority – to consolidate his power – may lead him to reject a peacemaking role.

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NEW YORK – It is 50 years since the Six-Day War – the June 1967 conflict that, as much as any other event, continues to define the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. After the fighting was over, Israel controlled all of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, in addition to the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

Back then, the world saw this military outcome as temporary. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the backdrop to what was to become a diplomatic solution to the problem of the stateless Palestinians, was adopted some five months after the war ended. But, as is often the case, what began as temporary has lasted.

This is the context in which President Donald Trump recently declared that the United States recognized Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. Trump stated that the US was not taking a position on the final status of Jerusalem, including “the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty” there. He made clear that the US would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides. And he chose not to begin actually moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, even though he could have simply relabeled what is now the US consulate in Jerusalem.

The attempt to change US policy while arguing that little had changed did not persuade many. Most Israelis were pleased with the new US stance, and most in the Arab world and beyond were incensed.

Just why Trump chose this moment to make this gesture is a matter of conjecture. The president suggested it was simply recognition of reality and that his predecessors’ policy failure to do so had failed to yield any diplomatic benefits. This is true, although the reason diplomacy failed over the decades had nothing to do with US policy toward Jerusalem, and everything to do with divisions among Israelis and Palestinians and the gaps between the two sides.

Others have attributed the US announcement to American domestic politics, a conclusion supported by the unilateral US statement’s failure to demand anything of Israel (for example, to restrain settlement construction) or offer anything to the Palestinians (say, supporting their claim to Jerusalem). Although the decision has led to some violence, it looks more like an opportunity lost than a crisis created.

What made this statement not just controversial but potentially counterproductive is that the Trump administration has spent a good part of its first year putting together a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This announcement could well weaken that plan’s already limited prospects.

What the Trump administration seems to have in mind is to give outsiders, and Saudi Arabia in particular, a central role in peacemaking. Informing this approach is the view that Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments are more concerned with the perceived threat from Iran than with anything to do with Israel. As a result, it is assumed that they are prepared to put aside their long-standing hostility toward Israel, a country that largely shares their view of Iran.

Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would create a political context in the Arab world that would allow them to do just this. The hope in the Trump administration is that the Saudis will use their financial resources to persuade the Palestinians to agree to make peace with Israel on terms Israel will accept.

Image result for Trump and KushnerPresident Donald J. Trump and his Mid-East Expert-Advsor Jared Kushner

 

The problem is that the only plan to which this Israeli government is likely to agree will offer the Palestinians far less than they have historically demanded. If so, the Palestinian leaders themselves may well determine it is safer to say no than to sign on to a plan sure to disappoint many of their own people and leave them vulnerable to Hamas and other radical groups.

The Saudis, too, may be reluctant to be associated with a plan that many will deem a sellout. The top priority for the new Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to consolidate power, which the prince is doing by associating himself with an effort to attack corruption in the Kingdom and by pursuing a nationalist, anti-Iranian foreign policy.

But neither tactic is going entirely according to plan. The anti-corruption effort, while so far popular, risks being tarnished by selective prosecution of offenders (which suggests that it is more about power than reform) and reports about the crown prince’s own lifestyle. And the anti-Iran efforts have become inseparable from what has become an unpopular war in Yemen and diplomatic embarrassments in Lebanon and Qatar. Meanwhile, ambitious plans to reform the country are proving easier to design than to implement, and are sure to alienate more conservative elements.

The problem for Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law who leads US policy in this area, is that the Saudis are likely to prove much less of a diplomatic partner than the White House had counted on. If the new crown prince is worried about his domestic political standing, he will be reluctant to stand shoulder to shoulder with an American president seen as too close to an Israel that is unwilling to satisfy even minimal Palestinian requirements for statehood.

Image result for Richard N. Haas on JerusalemRichard N. Haas

All of which brings us back to Jerusalem. Trump argued that recognizing the city as Israel’s capital was “a long overdue step to advance the peace process and the work towards a lasting agreement.” More and more it appears that Trump’s move will have just the opposite effect.

Trump’s Jerusalem decision– An Undeniably Reckless Move


December 11, 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem decision– An Undeniably Reckless Move

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Leaders of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization, welcomed Pres. Donald Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his announcement that the US will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City.With more than 3.8 million members, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and one of the leading Christian grassroots movements in the world. CUFI spans all fifty states and reaches millions with its message. Each year CUFI holds hundreds of pro-Israel events in cities around the country. And each July, thousands of pro-Israel Christians gather in Washington, D.C. to participate in the CUFI Washington Summit and make their voices heard in support of Israel and the Jewish people.

 

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Donald Trump announced recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, igniting new levels of violence throughout the Middle East
 

The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is an undeniably reckless move that has the potential to ignite new levels of violence throughout the region. It’s also an obvious gift to Trump’s right-wing Zionist fans and a reminder that blind support for Israel is now central to far-right American identity.

This much should be clear to anyone who follows political dynamics both in the Middle East and here at home. Unfortunately, the predictable hand-wringing from liberals in response to the Jerusalem decision runs the risk of reinforcing some of the most damaging and self-serving myths about what is happening on the ground in Palestine/Israel.

The first of these myths concerns the supposed “status quo” in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine/Israel. Immediately after the announcement of Trump’s decision, we heard a chorus of voices lamenting that the change in U.S. policy would upset the delicate status quo in Jerusalem.

As critics of U.S. policy in the region have been saying literally for decades, however, the status quo itself is deeply unjust. Israel has been solidifying its colonization of Jerusalem through blatant land grabs and a wide range of administrative measures designed to push out Palestinians, all backed by broad, bipartisan support from Washington.

The reality in Jerusalem is the same as the reality throughout Palestine/Israel: an apartheid reality defined by the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and the denial of equal rights to Palestinians. Far from changing that reality, Trump’s decision simply brings it more into the open.

The second myth concerns the so-called “peace process.” While many have responded to Trump’s decision by issuing dire warnings that the decision will kill any hope of a negotiated, “two-state solution,” the reality is that this “solution” has been dead for decades.

The search for “peace” has served as a cover under which Israel has been able to solidify its colonial control over the territory, rendering impossible the dream of Palestinian national sovereignty.

In that sense, once again we can view Trump’s decision as simply making visible what policy elites in Washington and elsewhere have long been afraid to say: that the most important “process” on the ground is a colonization process, and that the U.S. has chosen to side with the colonizer.

As Mouin Rabbani, a respected Middle East analyst recently noted, “American recognition of Israel sovereignty in Jerusalem would send an unmistakable signal that Washington rejects not only the two-state settlement paradigm but also the Palestinian right to national self-determination in favour of permanent Israeli domination and Palestinian dispossession.”

In light of this, we would do well to recognize that while the Trump decision is potentially disastrous in its potential to provoke wider outbreaks of regional violence, it is also useful in the sense that it lays bare the core elements of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

How should progressives respond to the space that has been opened up by this decision? A good place to start is by interrogating the role of the Democratic Party establishment in propping up the “status quo” and “peace process” myths and, by extension, the Israeli colonial project. It’s worth remembering here that as The Hill noted, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been quite open about his role in pushing Trump to give Israel what it wants on Jerusalem.

Schumer may still believe that support for Israel is a winning strategy, but his base is increasingly moving in a different direction. As information about Israeli colonization has become more widely available and shared, especially among young people, more and more progressive voters have decided that being on the side of justice means refusing to go along with what Israel is doing. The recent letter signed by ten Democratic senators calling on Israel to stop the planned demolition of two Palestinian and Bedouin towns is an indication of how the political ground is shifting.

What this signals is that the current political moment offers to Democrats an opportunity to build a policy that is reality-based and justice-based rather than one that is based on denial and mythology.

In order to do this, it won’t be enough simply to pine for a return to the days before Trump’s decision. That makes no more sense than responding to the outrages of the Trump administration by longing for the days of supposedly “sensible” conservatives like Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. To participate in the rehabilitation of pre-Trump Republicans is to acquiesce to the rightward shift of the entire political spectrum. To prop up the myth of the “peace process” and the “two-state solution” in Palestine/Israel is to acquiesce to the normalization of ethnic cleansing and the mass violation of Palestinian rights.

There is a better path forward for progressives: insisting on justice as the compass guiding our political struggles. Palestinians are not going to get justice from Donald Trump — but they weren’t going to get it from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton either. The entire U.S. political class needs to be pushed from below on this and many other issues, and it is our job to keep applying the pressure.

John Collins, Ph.D., is a professor of global studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He is author of “Global Palestine,” and co-author of “Social and Cultural Foundations of Global Studies.” 

Foreign Policy: Balancing US-China Interest in the Trump–Xi era


December 11, 2017

Foreign Policy: Balancing  US-China Interest  in the Trump–Xi era

by David M Lampton, Johns Hopkins University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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The Asian Statesman,HE President President Xi Jinping–Economic Diplomacy

From 1945 to 2016 the United States used its economic, military and ideological power to build institutions, alliances and regimes that contributed to global economic growth and the avoidance of great power war. In doing so, it fostered the rise of a new constellation of powers, China notable among them, with which it must now deal. If the United States wants to see its interests met, Washington must win Beijing’s cooperation rather than try to compel it.

 

On entering office, US President Donald Trump put several contentious issues with China on the backburner in the hope of achieving his primary goal — North Korea’s denuclearisation. When that failed, the front burner of US–China relations became crowded with previously repressed issues.

Several of these — US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, talk of steel and aluminium tariffs, weapons sales to Taiwan, threats to tighten technology and investment flows as well as secondary sanctions on Chinese entities — threaten to become serious problems if not managed in a more careful manner than the Trump administration is currently demonstrating.

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From Pivot to Asia to Divert from Asia–America First

So what might the United States usefully do? There are three issues on which Washington should focus: fostering an economic balance of power in Asia that promotes regional stability, achieving more reciprocity in US–China relations and addressing the North Korean nuclear and missile problem.

A central part of Xi Jinping’s geo-economic vision is the expansion of regional links and the promotion of urbanisation and growth on China’s periphery to make China the central node in this growing region. For Beijing, this means north–south connectivity — namely supply chains that originate in China and extend to the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal and beyond.

Unless Washington wants Asia to become a unipolar sphere of Chinese influence, it should become more involved in the construction of regional infrastructure to foster linkages that are not just north–south but also east–west from India to Vietnam through Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia and on to Japan and the wider Pacific.

Turning to reciprocity, when China joined the WTO in 2001 its overseas trade and financial involvements grew enormously. So too did its global trade surplus and bilateral trade surplus with the United States. Beijing soon had the technology, capital and capacity to seize the opportunities of openness abroad without providing reciprocal domestic access to the United States and others.

From 2008 onwards, the pace of domestic economic, financial and foreign trade liberalisation slowed. China’s world trade partners came to realise that as China leapt outward to seize opportunities, it did not reciprocally open itself in areas where foreigners enjoyed comparative advantages. Consequently, the issues of ‘reciprocity’ and ‘fairness’ have moved to front and centre in US–China relations. US companies are now asking themselves why Chinese entrepreneurs should be able to freely acquire US service and technology firms when these areas in China are closed to foreigners.

While US feelings of resentment mount, finding ways to enhance reciprocity with Beijing that do not injure US workers or other bystanders is hard. Limiting Chinese investment into US employment-generating firms diminishes US job opportunities. On the other hand, ignoring the problem invites extremist proposals at home as well as contempt in Beijing.

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Finally, the issue of North Korea. Trump thought his predecessors had been right in pressing Beijing to put more pressure on North Korea and in their assessment that Beijing had sufficient means to do so. Where they had gone wrong, Trump believed, was in not making it worth Beijing’s while to apply the necessary pressure.

So President Trump suggested that Washington would give Beijing concessions in other areas — trade and Taiwan among them — in exchange for pressure on North Korea. Of all the reasons that this approach has not worked out (including the viability of some of Trump’s promised consessions) the most dominant is that Pyongyang resists following any external advice that it fears would be lethal to the regime.

Consequently, the Trump administration is left with the same stark choices as its predecessors, except that Trump has staked even more on the issue and North Korea is further down its deliverable nuclear weapons path.

It is time for Washington (in close consultation with its South Korean and Japanese allies) to acknowledge that North Korea has a modest nuclear deterrent, and that as a result the United States should shift its aim from denuclearisation to deterring the use and further proliferation of these capabilities.

The US–China relationship is fraught with problems and will be for the foreseeable future. The United States is no longer positioned to compel cooperation from China. Any policy changes from Beijing must be negotiated, and within this negotiation Washington must seek a balance of power and interests.

David M Lampton is Professor and Director of China Studies in the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘China’s Influence’.

 

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism


November 10, 2017

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism

https://www.economist.com

Fortunately, he has yet to notice

IF DENIZENS of political Washington recall the commotion, way back on February 24th, when President Donald Trump’s press team excluded CNN, the New York Times and others from a White House briefing, most probably shrug at the memory. Editors lodged formal complaints at the time, not least because the snub came hours after Mr Trump told cheering conservative activists that the “fake news media” are “the enemy of the people”. But there have been many commotions since, and worse snubs.

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Yet there are places where that kerfuffle in a White House corridor left a mark. Take Cambodia, the South-East Asian country whose autocratic government charged two ex-reporters in November with “espionage”, citing their previous work for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news outlet funded by the American government. There is a direct connection between the detention of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who face up to 15 years in prison, and that moment of early Trumpian bombast. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, pounced on the humbling of reporters by the White House, declaring with approval on February 27th that Mr Trump, like him, sees the press causing “anarchy”. The gloating did not stop there. Denouncing a CNN report on sex trafficking in Cambodia in August, Mr Hun Sen grumbled that “President Trump is right: US media is very tricky.” Cambodian officials expelled the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based outfit that promotes free and fair elections with funding from the American and other Western governments, and ordered radio stations to stop carrying broadcasts by RFA and the Voice of America.

Escalating the fight, the government accused the main opposition party of being involved in an American-backed plot to overthrow Mr Hun Sen, offering as evidence images of opposition activists meeting diplomats and Senator John McCain of Arizona. Livid at being rebuked by the American embassy in Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen took his complaints to the top. Using a summit of Asian leaders in Manila on November 13th to praise Mr Trump face-to-face, Mr Hun Sen called him “a great person” wisely uninterested in human rights. “I don’t know if you are like me, or I am like you,” he swooned. He had just one gripe. Mr Trump should “admonish” diplomats at the American embassy who were working against his “great principle” of non-interference in the politics of foreign lands.

A summit photograph of Mr Hun Sen with Mr Trump, thumbs-up, beaming, was hailed by Cambodia’s former foreign minister as proof that it is better to “meet with the boss” than talk to “slaves”. It was a remarkable moment, and a misjudgment. Mr Hun Sen, along with other despots and autocrats, saw a soulmate in an American President who campaigned by attacking the free press and the judiciary, who threatened to lock up his opponent once elected, who kept secret his tax returns, who suggested that the presidential election might be rigged, and who scorned the idea that his country is a democratic model, growling: “The world sees how bad the United States is.” That led the Cambodian leader to a gamble which, from outside the country, seems highly confusing: to try to recruit America’s president as an ally in a purge built around an anti-American conspiracy theory. It failed. On November 16th the White House issued a statement expressing “grave concern” after Cambodia’s highest court dissolved the main opposition party, declaring that next year’s elections, on current course, “will not be legitimate, free or fair” and warning of “concrete steps” in response.

Cambodia’s story is instructive. Mr Trump has flouted norms upheld—at least in theory—by all modern holders of his office. He has scorned the very idea of American exceptionalism, telling Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh in May: “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live.” A forthcoming national-security strategy is set to mark a step back from global leadership, towards a narrower, more zero-sum view of American interests. Nonetheless, some foreign rulers who felt emboldened to repress domestic enemies with impunity have been startled to find that no Trump doctrine reliably protects them.

The Trump White House is far too chaotic, riven by infighting and buffeted by the impulses of the president, to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics, says a senior administration official. A position may earn signs of support from Mr Trump, but “you can take that to the bank for as long as you are talking to him”, says the official—before a presidential tweet says the opposite minutes later. Mr Hun Sen’s blunder, the official says, was to project his own absolutism onto America. “He seems to think that now we have this rich old guy in charge of the United States, [Mr Trump] can snap his fingers and everything will change.” American government is messier than that. With a small country like Cambodia, policy remains broadly set by career foreign service officers (among them the American ambassador), by staff in the National Security Council and by members of Congress sincerely aggrieved by Mr Hun Sen’s assaults on democracy and news outlets. That group includes Mr McCain and his Republican colleagues Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Congressman Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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President Donald Trump and Hungary’s Strong Man Viktor Orban

A second telling case may be found in Hungary, a European ally and NATO member state whose increasingly autocratic government greeted Mr Trump’s election with glee, only to overreach in its turn. Relations between President Barack Obama and the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban were icy, chilled by the passage of laws curbing the independence of the press, the civil service and the courts. They were made worse by official attempts to rehabilitate anti-Semitic Hungarian leaders from the second world war, and by Mr Orban’s admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At one point in 2014, the State Department banned six Hungarian officials from entering America on suspicion of corruption—a dramatic step against a NATO ally. One of them tried to sue America’s top diplomat in Budapest for defamation.

Mr Orban is proud of being the first European leader to endorse Mr Trump, says the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington, Laszlo Szabo. It is “very obvious” that the two leaders share similar views on defending their countries from illegal immigrants, a term which the ambassador uses to cover the vast majority of those who reached Europe during the refugee crisis of 2015. They also agree on the public’s yearning for strong, sovereign governments that stand up for their national interests with what Mr Szabo calls a “healthy self-consciousness”. In April the Hungarian Parliament amended a higher-education law in a way that threatened to close down the Central European University (CEU), a graduate institute founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire, George Soros, a bogeyman to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. In June Hungary passed a law restricting foreign funding for civil-society groups, again singling out Mr Soros, and triggering legal action by the European Commission in Brussels, which believes the measure may breach EU fundamental rights. If Mr Orban expected to be thanked by the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress for this assault on Mr Soros, he was disappointed.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, told Mr Orban that the law against CEU threatens academic freedoms. Hungary forgot that Congress has no desire to encourage despotic attacks on the many American universities with branches overseas. The Trump-era State Department called the law on civil-society groups “another step away” from Hungarian commitments to the values of the EU and of NATO. In October the American chargé d’affaires, or acting ambassador to Hungary, David Kostelancik, delivered a blistering speech on press freedoms, decrying the growing dominance of “pro-government figures” over the media, who quash articles critical of the government. Treading a delicate path, Mr Kostelancik conceded that “My president is not shy about criticising the media when he believes reporters get it wrong or show bias,” but noted that “in the finest traditions of our free press”, the targets of Mr Trump’s wrath often point out that “not every criticism of the government is ‘fake news’.” Most pointedly, Mr Kostelancik deplored the “dangerous” decision of media outlets linked to the Hungarian government to publish the names of individual journalists deemed “threats” to the country.

A former Republican congressman who now works as a lobbyist for the Hungarian government, Connie Mack, supported a handful of members of the House of Representatives as they complained about the chargé d’affaires to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. Still, Mr Trump has neither sided with Mr Orban nor yet welcomed him to the Oval Office. Frustrated amid the chandeliered splendour of the Hungarian embassy in Washington, Mr Szabo calls his State Department critics “old Obama administration technocrats” who do not speak for Mr Trump. Hungary’s problems do not reach the president, he says. “Decisions about Hungary are not happening at the levels we would like.”

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi– A Fantastic Guy doing “a fantastic job” says President Donald Trump

A third and final case study involves Egypt, a large, important and problematic ally whose strongman leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (with Trump at The White House), has not found the new administration as easy to handle as he seemed to expect. Few modern presidents have pressed Egypt hard on human rights, placing greater emphasis on the stability of the most populous Arab country, and on co-operation with the Egyptian military, intelligence and counter-terrorist services. Relations have been sweetened with tens of billions of dollars in American aid since 1948, much of it to buy weapons.

Early expectations for Trump administration policy were not high. Mr Trump praised Mr al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” doing a “fantastic job” under trying circumstances, even as the State Department was preparing a formal memorandum to Congress accusing Egyptian authorities of arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances and reported extrajudicial killings. But in an unprecedented move the State Department froze nearly $100m in military and economic aid to Egypt, citing human-rights concerns, a move that a senior figure in the Obama administration applauds and calls “a significant piece of pain to impose”. Senators of both parties applied pressure to the State Department, freezing some aid for Egypt on their own initiative.

Mr Trump also secured the release of Aya Hijazi, an American dual national jailed on charges for which the authorities offered no serious evidence, after founding a charity to help street children. Her story caught Mr Trump’s attention—this is crazy, he told aides—and he proudly invited her to the White House after her release. The president, who is often highly interested in whether he, personally, will be given credit for an action, has said nothing in public about the other 60,000 political prisoners thought to languish in Egyptian cells.

A White House official says Mr Trump’s Egypt policy is proof that the President does work to promote human rights, despite his unconventional rhetoric. The approach of President George W. Bush was “to very publicly endorse this idea of pushing democracy and freedom. You saw the Obama administration very publicly embarrass leaders and say you must address these human rights issues,” says the official. But thanks to behind-the-scenes pressure, based on strong personal relations, Mr Trump “gets the results”. This aide casts the President as a Reagan-like realist, treating radical Islam as something akin to the communism of the age and working with imperfect allies, when necessary, to advance major reforms, notably in Saudi Arabia. “Look at the speeches that Bush and Obama gave, and nothing changed.”

Hardline nationalists in the President’s inner circle, notably his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and colleagues in the Domestic Policy Council, enjoy unusual clout during debates about refugees or UN reform, leaving them locked in what one former official calls “open warfare” with NSC staff. Despite this, democracy promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets.

How America projects its values has real-world effects, says Steve Pomper, who worked on human rights in the Obama-era NSC and is now at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a choice: giving people reason to hope if they are languishing in prison, or giving their jailers hope that they can act with impunity.” Mr Trump’s instincts are causing “grievous damage,” concludes a senior administration official. But foreign autocrats are also learning that America’s president does not rule alone. “The president may scorn checks and balances,” says the official, “but we still have them.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Relative moralism”