Bush's Selective Distaste For Dictators

"He is repressive and he ought to have free elections, and he ought to have a free press, and he ought to free his prisoners," our president said as he sat next to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in the Oval Office on Tuesday, May 14. An apt description, though it might have seemed to be a jaw-dropping breech of diplomatic etiquette.

But Mr. Bush wasn't talking about Dr. Mahathir. He was talking about Fidel Castro (in response to a question about Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba). One wonders, though, what the Malaysian leader must have been thinking as he heard the description.

"My message to the Cuban people," Mr. Bush concluded, "is demand freedom and you will have a president that stands with you."

Demand freedom in Malaysia and you're likely to wind up in prison and, no, George W. Bush won't be standing with you. He's standing instead with Dr. Mahathir, a repressive bigot who is another of our new best friends in the War on Terrorism.

After their session was over, White House spokespeople put out the word that the president had discussed human rights issues during his talks with the Malaysian leader. Dr. Mahathir had a different version. Human rights, he told reporters, "had not been discussed ... He [Bush] did not raise anything about democracy or human rights in Malaysia."

The War on Terrorism must be in some ways comforting to many of Mr. Bush's top aides. In foreign affairs, at least, it takes them back onto the familiar territory of the Cold War, when developing nations were either with us or against us, and leaders could abuse their people with impunity, provided they were stoutly anti-communist.

As an ally, Malaysia has several things to offer. It has reportedly been willing to share intelligence with Washington, and has helped with the Bush administration's efforts to break the financial networks that finance terror groups. Add to that a huge consumer electronics industry that exports a significant part of its output to the United States, and Malaysia seems to be exactly the kind of partner the administration is looking for.

Dr. Mahathir's style of government is a different matter. He has been Prime Minister since 1981, a period during which his country has underdone tremendous economic growth. But when things go wrong he tends to lash out at others: Dr. Mahathir publicly blamed the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s on Jews in general and international financier George Soros in particular. He rose to power by making the country's ethnic Chinese minority a scapegoat for the country's problems, and later enacted legal preferences for ethnic Malays in housing, home ownership, and the awarding of government contracts and university scholarships (somehow, he did all this while becoming one of Asia's main spokespeople against South Africa's apartheid regime).

Malaysia is a kind of pseudo-democracy. It holds regular and relatively clean elections, but the ruling National Front, led by Dr. Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has ruled since independence in 1957. The State Department's latest annual human rights report says, "Opposition leaders credibly claimed that the Election Commission, which is responsible for holding and monitoring elections, did not carry out its duties impartially."

UMNO's control is maintained, in part, through a carefully muzzled press. The State Department notes that, "Government restrictions, pressure, and intimidation led to a high degree of press self-censorship. The Government continued to limit the publication of an opposition party newspaper, and refused to renew the publication permits of several other political weeklies."

Aside from occasionally venting about George Soros, what has put Dr. Mahathir in Western newspapers the most in the last few years is the case of his one-time political heir, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was Deputy Prime Minister when Mahathir fired him in 1998 and, soon afterwards, had him arrested. After he appeared in court with visible facial bruises, the government admitted the obvious -- he had been beaten in prison. He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison on sodomy and corruption charges that even the State Department describes as "politically motivated."

According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Malaysian foreign minister that Dr. Mahathir would not be welcome in Washington (where he had not visited since 1994) until there was progress on Anwar's case and those of other dissidents. Apparently that has changed.

At least it's good to know the president still opposes repression in Cuba.

Laocoön was a priest who warned the people of Troy against taking the wooden horse inside the city walls. It is also the pen name of an American journalist who covers foreign policy and the media.

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