Hungary's Viktor Orban didn't deserve a White House invitation

 Hungary's Viktor Orban didn't deserve a White House invitation
© DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, President Donald TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE will entertain another of his kindred spirits at the White House. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s political strongman, will make his first visit to the presidential mansion in nearly two decades. Much has changed since he last came to Washington, and Orban himself has changed as well.

Orban once was not the autocrat that he aspires to be, if not already is. When Trump was appearing in New York’s society and gossip columns, Orban was leading the Hungarian resistance to communist rule in the waning days of the Cold War. While Trump was speculating in real estate, Orban — far from being the political conservative he is today — was a student leader who defied Hungary’s communist regime.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, by virtue of a speech that he delivered in June 1989 demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from his country, Orban instantly became a national hero. Ironically, at the time Orban was a student at Pembroke College, Oxford, financed by the Soros Foundation. It was only decades later that he would vilify its eponymous funder.

Orban is in his second round as prime minister. He initially won the position at age 35, when Fidesz, the party he founded and still leads, headed a coalition that won the 1998 parliamentary elections. Like Orban, Fidesz initially was oriented to the left; Orban gradually shifted the party’s orientation rightward. As prime minister, he sought to weaken the power of Hungary’s legislature as well as to stack key independent institutions such as the Central Bank with his partisan supporters.

Orban was defeated in the 2002 parliamentary elections, in part because of the rampant corruption that surrounded government. He did not accept his defeat lightly, alleging election fraud, though he eventually accepted that he had been driven into opposition. Orban returned to power in 2010 and has served as prime minister ever since. He has pursued an even more bitterly partisan, nationalist and xenophobic set of policies than he did during his first term in office. He has expressed considerable skepticism of the European Union (EU) and multinational institutions. He has tolerated an upsurge in Hungarian anti-Semitism even as he maintains close relations with Israel and its rightist prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Orban has pursued ever closer ties with Russia, signing a number of economic agreements with Moscow and exchanging visits with Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Can we do business with Kim Jong Un? Leadership analysis might give clues Russian defense minister: 'We won't do anything' in Europe unless US places missiles there MORE on a regular basis. He defied his EU partners by inviting Putin to Budapest shortly after Russia annexed Crimea and has criticized the EU’s imposition of sanctions against Moscow.

Orban has sought to limit the ability of foreign non-governmental organizations to nurture Hungarian democracy, an independent media and civil society. And, especially dear to the heart of the American president, in 2015 Hungary built a barrier on its Serbian border to keep out the flood of immigrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan that was banging on Europe’s doors. All told, it is not hard to see why Orban would be welcome in Donald Trump’s White House.

The two men share an uncannily common political orientation, though Orban has much more to show for his efforts. Both are staunchly anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim. Both do not hesitate to stoke nationalist resentment of foreigners. Both are strong supporters, indeed friends, of Israel’s Netanyahu. Both hate the independent media. (In that regard, Washington pleased Orban by cancelling a $700,000 State Department grant announced in 2017 meant to boost media freedom in Hungary.) Both resent power sharing with institutions not under their direct control. And both maintain a “special relationship” with Putin.

On the other hand, the president can only be envious of Orban’s record of accomplishments. Trump has yet to deliver on his promise to build a “big, beautiful wall,” as Orban has done. Trump has not been able to bend the Federal Reserve to his will, the way Orban has rendered Hungary’s Central Bank subservient to his. Trump is hamstrung by suspicion that he somehow is a captive of the Russians; he therefore cannot implement anything like the rash of agreements that Orban has reached with Putin. Finally, despite his best efforts, the president can only dream of reining in and diminishing Congress the way Orban has castrated the Hungarian Parliament.

Orban is exactly the kind of person who should not be coming to the White House. He represents the essence of nationalist, autocratic policies that are undermining not only democracy in his own country, but the cohesion that has kept Europe at peace for longer than at any time since the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Yet it is all but certain that when he and Trump do get together in Washington their meeting will be a love-in, and the president no doubt will then announce to the world that Orban is one of Europe’s — if not the world’s — finest statesmen.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.