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Donald Trump's plan for fighting terrorists: act like Saddam Hussein

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Tuesday was a bad day for Hillary Clinton — and so it should have been a good day for Donald Trump: Clinton got a lengthy tongue lashing from FBI Director James Comey, who called her use of a private email server while secretary of state “extremely careless.”

But instead of reveling in a bad news cycle for his opponent, Trump, at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina, decided to praise former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein:

He was a bad guy — really bad guy. 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.

This is a massive departure from traditional Republican beliefs on Hussein. Before launching the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush described Hussein as a member of the axis of evil who harbored terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda, and who could at any moment offer those terrorists access to chemical or biological weapons. (In fact, there was no link between Hussein and al-Qaeda.)

Even the Iraq War’s strongest critics don’t usually defend Hussein, who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people during his notoriously brutal dictatorship. They weren’t “terrorists” — they were ethnic and religious minorities and civilians killed with chemical weapons.

Trump’s claim that Hussein killed terrorists, on the other hand, isn’t true; both Republican and Democratic administrations considered Hussein’s Iraq to be a sponsor of terrorism. And Clinton’s campaign pounced on it: “Trump’s cavalier compliments for brutal dictators, and the twisted lessons he seems to have learned from their history, again demonstrate how dangerous he would be as Commander in Chief,” Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s senior policy adviser, said in a statement.

Trump admires strength more than due process of law

This isn’t the first time Trump has praised Hussein. In October, he said there were “no terrorists in Iraq” while Hussein was in charge — "A one day trial and shoot him … and the one day trial usually lasted five minutes, right?” — and in December, he shrugged off Hussein’s use of gas.

Trump isn’t just praising Hussein for running a country more stable than Iraq has been in the wake of the US invasion. He’s arguing that due process, consideration for the rights of the accused, and other integral aspects of American constitutional democracy are getting in the way of the US doing the same. Rather than the US trying to export its norms to the Middle East, he’s implying, maybe we could learn something from Middle Eastern dictators.

Trump approaches the world like a zero-sum business negotiation, and the most important thing, to him, is to appear strong. That’s why he’s also praised Vladimir Putin and the Chinese crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors. To Trump, strength itself is a praiseworthy quality — no matter whether that strength is turned to good ends or bad.

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