Strongmen: How should the U.S. relate to repressive leaders?

May 7, 2017

President Trump has praised leaders of countries around the world who are known to have violated human rights. What should the U.S. stance toward such "strongmen" be? In this activity, students work together to match eight leaders with their country and with charges about their human rights abuses. Then students read about and discuss President Trump's stances toward these leaders and the debate over them.  



The word "strongman" has two definitions in the English Oxford dictionary:

  • "A man of great physical strength, especially one who performs feats of strength as a form of entertainment."
  • "A leader who rules by the exercise of threats, force, or violence."

Tell students that today we’re going to talk about the second kind of "strongman," and the controversy over President Trump’s positive statements about various strongmen around the world.



Mix and Match Quiz

Print out this pdf, which includes three sets of sheets (a total of 24 sheets).

Set 1:  8 Strongmen
Set 2:  The countries they lead
Set 3:  Facts about their human rights record

Give Set 1 to a volunteer, and ask them to post or tape the sheets in a horizontal line across the wall. Ask the volunteer to read the names as s/he posts them.

Give Set 2 to a second volunteer. Work with the class to match these countries with each of the strongmen. Ask the volunteer to post or tape these sheets directly underneath the appropriate strongman.

Give Set 3 to a third volunteer. Now work with the class to match the leader and country with the pieces of information provided in Set 3.  Once you’ve made a match, ask the volunteer to post or tape these sheets underneath the sheets of the appropriate leader and country. 



1. Vladimir Putin, Russia
C:  Has had political opponents, journalists, demonstrators and LGBT activists arrested and sometimes murdered. Statement: "There is no such thing as a former KGB man."

2. Saddam Hussein, Iraq
H:  During his decades-long reign, his crimes included mass murder, torture, war and the use of poison gas. Statement: "Nothing worse than Kurds in your milk. General, make sure I never see another Kurd again."

3.  Kim Jong Un, North Korea
D:  Crimes of his regime include (according to the UN): "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation"

4.  Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines
A: Oversaw the execution of about 7000 drug dealers. Statement: "Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them."

5. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt
E: Since taking power in a coup, has cracked down on journalists and human rights activists. Statement: "Please, don't listen to anyone but me. I am dead serious."

6.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey
B: Since the coup attempt in July 2016, he has purged about 140,000 people from their jobs and arrested 50,000.

7. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand
G:  Took power in a military coup, has refused to hold elections, arrested dissidents and enforced strict censorship. Statement: "Please understand that I don’t come from an election. I’m well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics."

8.  Viktor Orban, Hungary
F:  Has taken increased control of the country's media, legislated against NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and imprisoned migrants in packing crates. Statement: "We want no more people to come. Those who are here, go home!"


Student Reading:
Trump & Strongmen

Even before his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has expressed  admiration for leaders commonly labeled as dictators.

The list of dictators and strongmen that President Trump  has praised includes Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un. Trump's admiration for repressive leaders is not new. In 1990, Trump praised the Chinese government's "strength" in putting down student protests for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square; hundreds of protesters were killed. Though Trump’s praise is often interspersed with acknowledgement that the leader did "bad things," he consistently voices respect for each leader’s use of power.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein was Iraq’s president from 1979 till 2003. Hussein was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, according to Human Rights Watch. His secret police were notorious for torture.  He bombed Kurdish villages with chemical weapons.

President Trump said of Hussein: "But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism." Trump also said: "Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy."

Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been directly or indirectly involved in the assassinations of dozens of journalists and political opponents. He has cracked down on media by shutting them down, prosecuting them on trumped up charges, and by purchasing media outlets outright. (Sixty percent of Russian newspapers are government-owned.)

In 2015, Trump said on MSNBC's Morning Joe: "He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country." Trump also said: "I think our country does plenty of killing also." And:  "Certainly in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been."

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

After a coup deposed the elected Islamist president of Egypt in 2013, el-Sisi gained control. He turned the country into a near police state with mass detentions, torture of prisoners, and jailing over 40,000.  Egyptian police killed 800 to 1000 demonstrators in one day. President Obama initially shut down military aid to Egypt to coerce al-Sisi into easing the repression, but eventually relented. 

President Trump seemed to have no such reservations: "We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation."

Rodrigo Duterte

When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was mayor of the city of Davao, he organized death squads to kill criminals. According to a former member of a 100-member death squad, Edgar Matobato, Duterte himself would choose which victims would be executed. Since his election to the presidency, Duterte has bragged about the killings, and the death squads have emerged in the nation's capital of Manila. 

Since Trump's election, the leaders have had two friendly conversations, and Trump has invited Duterte to visit the White House.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Trump’s invitation to Duterte: "Ignoring human rights will not advance U.S. interests in the Philippines or any place else. Just the opposite." Trump’s praise of strongmen around the globe has also alarmed human rights activists. Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First told the Washington Post, "Nothing excuses President Trump’s clear inclination to reward mass murderers and torturers with undeserved honors."

In response, reports the Washington Post:

Trump’s advisers said the president’s silence on human rights matters is purposeful, part of a grand strategy to rebuild alliances or create new ones. Trump’s outreach is designed to isolate North Korea in the ­Asia-Pacific region and to build coalitions to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa, senior administration officials said.

U.S. presidents and the U.S. government have a long history of supporting dictatorships around the world. But critics point to some differences in Trump's approach.

  • There does not seem to be a larger strategy at play
  • President Trump has been quick to make overtures to the strongmen, and has done this without consulting State Department analysts.
  • President Trump has praised leaders without adding any criticisms or warnings about their documented human rights abuses.

Supporters of Trump's approach argue that:

  • Having a good relationship with repressive regimes makes it more possible to exert influence on human rights.
  • It's necessary to curry favor with dictators in order to fight the larger menaces of ISIS and North Korea.
  • The President's campaign promised to keep America "first," and that may sometimes entail placing a low priority on human rights abuses in other countries


Discussion Questions

  1. President Trump is very proud of his negotiating skills. Do you think he will make deals with dictators to reverse their undemocratic or brutal methods of control?
  2. Should the United States use its influence to safeguard human rights in other countries?  
  3. What do you think about the argument that maintaining good relationships with dictators gives the U.S. more power to influence them? Is praising these leaders helpful? Why or why not?
  4. Should the United States accept human rights violations in countries whose help we seek in fighting terrorism? If so, what level of abuse should we be willing to accept?
  5. Under other presidents, the United States has supported many dictatorships around the world. Is Trump any different? Why or why not?