Donald and Bibi’s Tin-Pot International

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the White House. 

It’s been a busy international relations week for the Western World’s two leading wannabe autocrats, U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s Veep, Mike Pence, met with stony silence when he told a gathering of Western European officials in Munich that they should join the U.S. in repudiating the multi-national agreement with Iran, which lifted trade sanctions with that nation in return for its ceasing to develop nuclear weapons. Our traditional European allies haven’t abandoned that agreement, since Iran appears to be living up to its end of the bargain. That silence wasn’t just due to Trump’s pulling out of that accord unilaterally, but was also the product of Trump’s broader repudiation of maintaining alliances with democracies, and of the conduct of such Trump-appointed diplomats as our ambassador to Germany, who all but endorsed that nation’s far-right AfD Party—not that we’ve ever had any unpleasant experiences with the German far right ourselves, mind you.

Indeed, Trump has made clear that the European governments with which he feels more at home are the rightwing nationalist regimes of Eastern Europe, which have followed our lead, and the Israelis’, in re-imposing sanctions on Iran. As for those regimes’ efforts to eradicate independent judiciaries and a free and independent press, as Poland and Hungary have sought to do (in Hungary’s case, successfully), to traffic in anti-Semitism (chiefly Hungary, again), and to refuse to admit any of the refugees streaming into Europe (the policy of virtually every Eastern European nation)—well, most of those are policies that make Trump and his Republican stooges feel either envious or right at home. 

As with Trump, so with Bibi, who was planning on convening a summit meeting with Eastern European governments until it fell apart yesterday due to unbridgeable historical differences. Bibi certainly deserves an A for Effort, however, in trying to overcome those differences. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, after all, has resurrected every anti-Semitic trope in the book, not just in vilifying Hungarian-born George Soros for funding democratic institutions in his native land but also for extolling the World War II-era Horthy regime, which cooperated with the Nazis in murdering hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. But then, Bibi has also attacked Soros, who, as one of those meddlesome champions of human rights, has spoken up for Palestinians and a two-state solution. Orbán’s anti-Muslim fulminations are also music to his ears—so Bibi’s been willing to overlook Hungary’s turn to anti-Semitism and “illiberal democracy” (Orbán’s words) in return for Hungarian support for Bibi-stan—excuse me, for Israel’s policies of increasing religious exclusivity and illiberal nationalism, which are among the hallmarks of Bibi-ism. 

But if Bibi is willing to look the other way as Hungary grows more anti-Semitic, Poland has proved to be a bridge too far. Here, the problem was history. This week, Israel’s acting foreign minister, quoting former Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir, noted that “Poles suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk”—a judgment, allowing for its metaphoric form, that no fact-checker could really dispute. There are just too many Israelis whose grandparents or great-grandparents had to flee Poland, ultimately, for their lives, or whose grandparents or great-grandparents were killed there by the Nazis, frequently abetted by Poles, or by Poles acting without benefit of Nazi assistance.

In response to Bibi’s foreign minister’s remarks, and a somewhat misconstrued comment from Bibi himself, the Poles pulled out of Bibi’s summit yesterday, upon which the other Eastern European governments sent their regrets as well. Bibi had been cultivating them chiefly because the more democratic governments of Western Europe had become increasingly critical of Israel’s 50-year-and-counting occupation of the West Bank, the harshness of that occupation, and Israel’s opposition to the formation of a Palestinian state. The incipient authoritarians of Eastern Europe, Bibi recognized, have fewer concerns for human rights. 

What both Trump and Bibi seem eager to form is what we might call the Tin-Pot International—an alliance of crudely nationalistic wanna-be authoritarian parties and governments, rooted in bigotries euphemized as “traditional values,” that encompasses a number of Eastern European regimes, the new government of Brazil, the thugocracy of the Philippines, and the right-populist parties of Western Europe as well. Geography and history make the inclusion of Russia in this formation impossible; much of Eastern Europe would never go for it (Orbán appears willing, but the Poles would reflexively reject it). But for the inconvenience of history, however, Russia under Putin would be a charter member.    

For Israel, aligning with Trump and his fellow Tin-Pots signals not just a repudiation of the state’s democratic origins but a clear break with most Diaspora Jews, whose politics necessarily begin with an affirmation of minority rights. For the U.S., the embrace of Tin-Pot-ism has long been a selective element of foreign policy outside the West (as in our policies toward Central America, Vietnam, the Philippines—it’s a long list), but nonetheless marks a repudiation of our longstanding alliances with the parliamentary democracies of the West. At minimum, the Trump-Bannon worldview makes a mockery of the values for which Americans died in World War II.  

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