Washington―The United States has never been especially consistent in raising human rights, but President Donald Trump’s administration, with its kid-glove treatment of Saudi Arabia, has sent a message clearer than ever before―allies need not worry about criticism.
And in case of US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, a former State Department official said, the Trump administration was fully justified in emphasizing good relations for a variety of important reasons―including counter-terrorism
Since journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, President Donald Trump has cast doubt on the widespread reports that the writer was killed and praised the kingdom for launching its own investigation.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Riyadh on Tuesday, said they found reasons not to risk ties with the oil-rich monarchy, including its role as the biggest foreign buyer of US weapons and its support for the US campaign against regional rival Iran.
“All administrations and, frankly, all governments suffer from the need to sequence and decide when they focus on national security, when they focus on human rights, when they combine the two and use the leverage to address the one versus the other,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
Under former President Barack Obama, human rights at least came up rhetorically and issues such as approval of arms sales were considered pressure points to influence governments, she said.
“But Trump and his Cabinet officials have just dropped the pretense completely and they’ve made it clear that the primary interest is American sovereignty and America’s short-term economic and security concerns,” Margon said.
Rob Berschinski, who worked on human rights in the Obama administration and is now senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, said that Trump’s message was even more unsettling in
that he had embraced leaders with dire records on how they treat their citizens, such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“From trying to eliminate funding for foreign assistance aimed at promoting democracy and human rights, to openly embracing dictators, to calling journalists ‘enemies of the state,’ President Trump has made clear that he believes that there is no benefit to the United States in being seen as a force for good in the world,” Berschinski said.
One of the few areas on which the administration has aggressively supported human rights is religious freedom, an issue dear to Vice President Mike Pence and conservative Christians who are politically crucial to Trump.
Trump placed sanctions on Turkey over its detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was welcomed to the White House after his release last week. But the United States has spoken little of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, whose rulers impose an austere form of Islam and prohibit the public practice of other faiths.
The lower focus on human rights is no spontaneous shift. Near the start of the Trump administration, the State Department’s then director of policy planning Brian Hook wrote a leaked memo saying that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China and the troubled Arab Spring had lowered hopes for bringing change.
“In the case of US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, the administration is fully justified in emphasizing good relations for a variety of important reasons, including counter-terrorism, and in honestly facing up to the difficult tradeoffs with regard to human rights,” Hook wrote to then secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
“It is not as though human rights practices will be improved if anti-American radicals take power in those countries. Moreover, this would be a severe blow to our vital interests,” he wrote.
Hook now heads the State Department campaign to pressure Iran, considered enemy number one for the Trump administration.
The Trump team on a near-daily basis attacks Iran over its treatment of its citizens and also takes the clerical regime to task over its military involvements around the Middle East.
The United States even recently denounced Iran’s record on the environment―a curious focus for an administration not known for its interest in conservation.
As relations sour with China, largely over trade, the United States has also opened a new front by denouncing China over its sweeping detentions of Uighur Muslims and other religious minorities.
But human rights have taken a back burner when it comes to North Korea, improving relations with which Trump considers a signature foreign policy triumph.
Rights groups consider North Korea one if not the most draconian regime in the word, with a 2014 UN study finding that Pyongyang imprisons 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in four large camps where they face deliberate starvation.
While an annual human rights report at the State Department continues to document North Korea’s record, Pompeo has made clear that he is only focusing on the state’s nuclear, missile and other military programs in his diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, who met Trump for a landmark summit in June.
Richard Haass, the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, recently tweeted: “At some point, an amoral foreign policy becomes an immoral foreign policy.
“US foreign policy under [Trump] has reached such a point.”