February issue 2017

By | Newsbeat International | Published 5 months ago

Its membership is scattered across the globe, from Russia, Hungary and Poland to India and the Philippines, and then on to Turkey, Egypt and Israel. All of the leaders in question are more or less democratically elected, yet share an aversion to the essence of democracy. To varying degrees, all of them are allergic to valid criticism, although their reactions may differ.

And there are, of course, bound to be jealousies within the club. Trump may bristle at the relative restraint he is compelled to exercise. He cannot, for instance, order the imprisonment of all journalists who dared to point out that the crowd at his inauguration was far smaller than the one that celebrated Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidential post eight years ago.

Egypt’s Abel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t have had too many qualms, in similar circumstances, of instituting trumped-up charges relating to national security or insults against the head of state. And Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have gone even further by not just incarcerating individuals but shutting down the offending media outlets to boot. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, journalists who insist, despite warnings, on disseminating inconvenient truths sometimes end up dead.

And, who knows, Trump may be particularly envious of the freedom of action enjoyed by the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, infamous for publicly designating anyone he doesn’t like, including Barack Obama and Pope Francis, as “the son of a whore” and, far worse, authorising the gunning down of thousands of his compatriots on the suspicion that they might be drug dealers or addicts. No judge, jury or due process, simply execution by presidential fiat, and if some of the bullets hit bystanders or family members, that’s perfectly acceptable.

What is perhaps most shocking is that Duterte’s popularity has skyrocketed in the process, notwithstanding his admission of having personally murdered individuals in the past, or his insulting attitude towards the church in what has always been perceived as a devoutly Catholic nation.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, cannot go that far, thankfully, but presides over what he has proudly described as an “illiberal democracy,” a state in which nationalism trumps human rights and refugees tend to officially be viewed as vermin. In Poland, the deeply conservative Law and Justice Party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, holds the strings and is perceived as more powerful than the prime minister or the president. Just a few months ago, persistent demonstrations by women were required to defeat an attempt to ban abortion – prefiguring, in a fashion, the Women’s March on Washington (and associated demonstrations across the US and the western world) that immediately followed Trump’s inauguration and, much to the new president’s consternation, drew far larger crowds.

Orban is a fan of Putin – unlike Kaczynski, who lost his twin brother (at a time when the two of them, somewhat confusingly, held the posts of president and PM) in a plane crash in Russia under what some consider to be suspicious circumstances – and will in time probably endear himself to Trump. All three of them see eye to eye on Muslims in general and Middle eastern refugees in particular.

Some Eastern European governments, though, are bound to be suspicious of Trump’s adulation of Putin and his frequently expressed doubts about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was originally supposed to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. It survived the demise of both and expanded to Russia’s borders, in violation of verbal American promises to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

NATO and Russia have been mutually provocative in the Baltic region, with occasional prognostications of outright hostilities, invariably from the western side. NATO was at a loss when Russia entered eastern Ukraine and captured the Crimea, following what was seen by some as a western orchestrated coup in Kiev. Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, so there was no excuse to intervene – but the quest for a pretext has continued ever since.

Whether or not Trump’s doubts about NATO – on the basis that the US carries too much of the weight in terms of both the military component and finances – are related to his attraction to the Kremlin, he apparently told the first head of government to visit him that he was “100 per cent behind NATO.” Which, of course, contradicts what he has said in the past, but that’s the new normal.

The head of government in question was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who also heard encouraging words about the prospect of a trade deal, which Britain is desperate for, given the looming prospect of its exit from the European Union (EU). Trump has, however, upended the decades-long norm whereby free trade was an article of faith in American foreign policy, often elevated to the same status as the hypocritical catch-cries of freedom and democracy.

But Trump has nixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which, frankly, is just as well, given its secretive nature and the widespread suspicion that it sought to enhance the advantages that multinational corporations already enjoy – and is unhappy about the North Atlantic Free Trade agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico. He has reiterated his determination to build a wall along the 3,200-kilometre Mexican border to keep out refugees and economic migrants, and to make Mexico pay for it, if not upfront then through a 20 per cent tariff on imports.

Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, was prompted by these actions to pull out of a scheduled meeting with Trump in Washington, but there’s at least one member of the strongmen’s club who must see it as vindication for his own nation’s much derided barrier: the one between Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not a particularly happy chappie these days, being under investigation for corrupt dealings – and Israel deserves kudos for a polity in which a prime minister can be interrogated on such grounds (it’s hard to imagine any other member of the brotherhood of strongmen submitting himself to this sort of indignity). What’s despicable, though, but hardly surprising, is that the Likud-led Netanyahu administration used the Trump inauguration as a trigger for expanding illegal settlements in the occupied territories. The action enjoys the imprimatur of David Friedman, Trump’s choice as ambassador to Israel, whose expressed views make Netanyahu seem reasonably moderate.

Trump has expressed the intention of shifting his nation’s embassy from Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem – and Friedman has indicated he will start working out of Jerusalem right away, even before the move. The idea of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma in fact died long ago, although some people refused to acknowledge it. Now it has been buried. The only feasible alternative is a one-state solution. That state will either not be Jewish in the way Israel is at present, or it won’t be even superficially democratic.

Netanyahu may be compelled to bow out of politics, but many of those waiting in the wings are even more reprehensible in many respects. Trump, meanwhile, is convinced his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is the only person in the world who can resolve the question that has dogged the Middle East since long before Kushner was born.

But then, it makes sense for arguably the most successful conman in the world to surround himself with all kinds of snake-oil salesmen. Trump’s cabinet is a chamber of horrors, mainly military men and millionaires, with many of the nominees viscerally at odds with the portfolios they are meant to represent. He is unlikely, at least in the short term, to face any serious obstructionism from a Republican-dominated Congress. And he will have a chance to determine the leanings of the Supreme Court. So the much vaunted American system of checks and balances may effectively be in abeyance.

But he is at least potentially answerable to certain institutions – just like India’s Narendra Modi, who also does not enjoy the kind of operational leeway available to Putin, Erdogan or el-Sisi. He has nonetheless managed to pursue a doggedly nationalist, conservative agenda wedded to Hindutva. And it’s no surprise he has already secured himself an invitation to the White House. Should he be inclined to take regional mischief-making to the next level, he may well be able to arrange American approval in advance, particularly if he couches his intent in simplistic terms that Trump is programmed to respond to, such as “Islam” and “terrorism.”

Nawaz Sharif may have been fooled by his post-election telephone conversation with Trump into assuming that he would be offered a seat at the table. But, let’s face it, someone who plays second fiddle to the army in his own country can hardly qualify as a strongman. He probably wouldn’t be admitted even as an associate member of the club.

Theresa May, on the other hand, could be recognised at least as a fellow traveller. She has certainly spared no effort in ingratiating herself with some of the world’s worst rulers, heading off to Turkey for a tête-à-tête with Erdogan straight after the exciting experience of holding hands with Trump. Not a word was said about the systematic human rights abuses perpetrated since the mid-2016 coup attempt, nor the chilling clampdown on free expression. Trade was on the top of May’s agenda, and they probably had a bitching session about the EU.

Although the he-men of the brotherhood are mostly misogynists – it broadly goes with the ideological territory and the perverted mindsets – it would be unfair to blame May’s exclusion on those grounds. She’s no Margaret Thatcher, she’s a vulnerable leader in a nation beset with uncertainty. Should Marine Le Pen by some misfortune emerge as the French president after this year’s elections, she will be admitted into full membership of the club with a minimum of fuss.

Le Pen is just one potential recruit among European politicians striving to surge to power by latching on to the lowest common denominators across a continent petrified by terrorism and encouraged to make a direct connection between horrific acts of mass murder and the vast refugee influx of the past two years. There is also plenty of economic dislocation and despair. But the French National Front leader is only one positioned to reap a benefit in the short term – although Geert Wilders, another natural fit for the club, could end up in a coalition government following elections in the Netherlands.

Germany is unlikely to throw up another Adolf Hitler, at least in the foreseeable future, but the redoubtable Angela Merkel – perhaps the only contender for the traditional post of the leader of the free world – is likely to find her majority dented by sharp intrusions from the far right, which always seem particularly worrisome in that particular country.

For the moment, though, proto-fascism is a far bigger concern in other parts of the world, including in Germany’s neighbourhood. But, inevitably, it’s the new kid on the block who attracts most attention, not least after announcing a moratorium on Middle Eastern refugees and effectively banning visitors from seven Muslim countries and introducing “extreme vetting” procedures for others, including Pakistan – yet excluding the likes of Turkey and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It may be no coincidence that Trump has business ventures in most of these countries.

It isn’t inconceivable that ultimately Trump and Netanyahu will be associated in the public mind not through their respective walls but because both were waylaid by corruption investigations. In the event, the club would suffer a blow, but Putin – immune to challenges from any domestic institution – may have the last laugh as he speeds up Russia’s dogged pursuit of universal recognition as a superpower.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.