It’s been a long time since a major American political figure has received kind words from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Donald Trump can now count himself as one of the lucky few to receive that unusual honor.
In his end of the year press conference, Putin praised Trump for being an “absolute leader” and welcomed the Republican front-runner’s promise to forge closer relations between Russia and the U.S.
In typical Donald fashion, the real estate tycoon embraced the endorsement and felt no reason to reject it. Even when confronted with assertions the Russian president has killed journalists and political dissidents, Trump doubled down on his international bromance and argued that at least the ex-KGB agent is a “real leader.” (RELATED: Trump Downplays Putin Killing Journalists, Dissidents)
Naturally enough, the budding relationship between the two men is now the latest media hysteria for Trump. Journalists are incensed anyone would like a world leader who has allegedly had reporters killed and has certainly curtailed media criticism.
Republican figures — such as Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio — have also joined the fray in criticizing Trump for accepting Putin’s praise. A desperate John Kasich even created a whole website dedicated to promoting “Trump/Putin 2016” and how it will “Make Tyranny Great Again.”
Gleaning from the outrage, it would appear Vladimir Putin is the most brutal, anti-democratic dictator in the world and an endorsement from him is about as welcome as an al-Qaida fatwa.
While it is true Russia is not exactly an exemplar of liberal democracy, it is also true many of America’s allies are not pinnacles of freedom either.
In fact, there’s more than a few countries which are way worse when it comes to human rights and free expression than the regime of Mr. Putin.
The most prominent example of this discrepancy is Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the U.S. and leading presidential candidates — like Rubio and Hillary Clinton — have pledged to continue to work with the country if they are elected to the White House. However, the Saudis have a human rights record that makes Putin look like Pope Francis.
The Gulf state doesn’t just witness political dissident die under mysterious circumstances — it’s against the law to be one. A few months ago, a teenager was sentenced to be beheaded and crucified simply for attending an anti-government rally. According to Human Rights Watch, it is very common for the state to issue harsh sentences for the crime of speaking out against the government.
While Russia’s superfluous anti-gay propaganda law has been widely denounced in the West, Saudi Arabia punishes homosexuality with the death penalty — which is rarely mentioned in popular discourse.
In addition to killing dissenters and gay citizens, Saudi Arabia has frequently executed individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy. In November, a prominent Arab poet was given the death penalty for his allegedly “blasphemous” poetry.
It’s pretty clear the Saudis have zero tolerance for speech the government doesn’t like, but few Western leaders dare criticize the regime. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström accidentally caused a diplomatic war between her state and the Saudis after merely criticizing the country’s human rights record.
Russia has frequently been chastised for engaging in aggressive actions — such as the takeover of Crimea and undercover support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine — that jeopardize the peace and stability of various parts of the world. The Saudis more than match this behavior.
In Syria, they have contributed millions in dollars and arms to Salafi militants which has extended the conflict and given a power vacuum for ISIS and al-Qaida to exploit. A significant portion of those arms and dollars have gotten into the hands of ISIS and other radical elements.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi mosques throughout Europe that several officials and experts — such as German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel — have seen as directly influencing the spread of radical Islam.
However, the oil-rich Gulf state is not alone in the category of American allies that don’t handle dissent well. Pretty much every ally of ours in the region has a human rights record not worth writing home about and is prone to belligerency that harms American interests.
For instance, Turkey — the country some Republicans like Lindsey Graham praised for shooting down a Russian plane — forbids acknowledging the nation’s genocide of a million Armenians during World War I and has spent of most of its “involvement” in the fight against ISIS bombing ISIS-fighting Kurds.
It may be a hard truth to swallow that America’s allies aren’t going to be pinnacles of liberty, but it’s necessary to accept in order to safeguard our interests and security. We can’t hope that every nation around the world subscribes to liberal democracy.
Now, obviously, one of the things that prevents Russia from getting a pass on its spotty record is its collision with America on foreign policy. From Ukraine to Syria, Putin has consistently been a thorn in the side of American policy, and the increasing belligerence of the Russian Federation has sent jitters among the U.S.’s NATO allies.
Another reason Russia gets more scrutiny is we believe the country should be held to a higher standard by dint of its inclusion in Europe. But the Motherland is very different from the rest of the continent. Putin oversees a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural landmass that is unstable and has little experience with liberal democracy. It’s worth remembering the Soviet Union fell within the last 25 years and the nation is still trying to rebuild itself up from the dark days of communism.
It should come as no surprise that there is a degree of authoritarianism that still lingers around in the country.
Similar to how the supposed experts imagine regime change in the Middle East, many politicians think if Putin left, a moderate liberal would come into power and everything would be a-ok.
But just like what has happened when the U.S. has supported Middle Eastern regime change, chaos is more likely to follow than liberal democracy if Putin was hastily put out to pasture and a more dictatorial, bellicose government could very well come about.In a world where our primary enemy should be Islamic extremism, it’s worth the effort to try to work with the Russians on the matter instead of trying to initiate World War III over Putin’s treatment of Pussy Riot.
Of course, the sometime-shirtless president is not a democrat, but neither is King Salman of Saudi Arabia. But if we hope to crush ISIS and similar groups, we’re going to need the help of both powers to do so.
Maybe it’s time then to retire the hyperbole about Putin being the next Hitler and recognize the fact that not every nation on earth is going to be like the U.S. of A.