The Trump Administration’s Human Rights Confidence Game: Targeting Adversaries, Excusing Allies

Promoting human rights is a central tenet of US foreign policy. Sometimes. In practice, Washington is most enthusiastic about defending life, liberty, and happiness where America has the least clout. And American policymakers most often remain silent when allied governments, whom the US could most influence, are detaining, torturing, and murdering opponents.

The Trump administration has taken this approach to an extreme, losing all credibility on the issue. For President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo human rights are a weapon to be used against adversaries. When friends are the abusers, the issue is quietly and speedily dismissed, never to be mentioned again.

Last week Pompeo presented the conclusions of his Commission on Unalienable Rights at the United Nations, attempting to shape the definition of human rights. The US was joined by 56 other nations in affirming that "Certain principle are so fundamental as to apply to all human beings, everywhere, at all times."

It was a grand gesture. However, few robust liberal democracies that respect human rights joined Pompeo. Indeed, 46 of the supporting countries were rated not free or partly free by the group Freedom House: Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Bahrain, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Gambia, Gabonese Republic, Georgia, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mauritania, Moldova, Morocco, Niger, North Macedonia, Philippines, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Zambia.

One can quibble with the ratings here or there. However, all of these states suffer from major lapses in political and/or civil liberties. None are exemplars of the unalienable rights the Trump administration purported to support. Several are notable, even embarrassing, dictatorships or failed states. What State Department factotum had the bright idea to ask countries headed by murderers, oppressors, and aggressors to endorse an American human rights initiative?

However, this should surprise no one. The administration only uses the issue to advance other foreign policy objectives.

For instance, last week the administration announced sanctions against Iranian officials for abusing their people. The Tehran regime is oppressive: a political dictatorship that persecutes religious minorities, enforces social conformity, and intervenes violently abroad. Among those sanctioned were two judges who were "responsible for certain gross violations of human rights." One reportedly presided at a trial of wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed for allegedly killing a security guard. Pompeo charged: "Too often, the Iranian regime targets, arrests, and kills the brightest and most promising Iranians, thereby depriving Iran of its greatest asset – the skill and talent of its own people."

It was a lovely PR stunt for uber-hawks fixated on Iran. Yet the secretary’s professed concern for people whose economy the administration is actively attempting to wreck was pure theater. After all, the remedy – economic sanctions – was unlikely to have any impact on the targeted jurists. If they don’t possess US bank accounts and aren’t planning American vacations, they won’t even notice. In short, the administration acted to enhance the president’s reelection prospects, not the Iranian people’s living standards.

Worse, the administration never criticizes allies for even worse crimes. Hypocrisy in foreign policy is to be expected. However, Pompeo takes sanctimonious duplicity to extraordinary heights.

Every one of Washington’s closest Mideast partners engages in terrible human rights practices. There is Saudi Arabia, ruled by a licentious, corrupt absolute monarchy. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman kidnaps, imprisons, and executes his opponents and critics. His minions used the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as an abattoir and sliced and diced Jamal Khashoggi, an independent journalist living in America. According to Bob Woodward’s new book Trump gloried in having protected MbS from retribution.

The kingdom is far more oppressive than Iran – with no elections of any sort, no religious liberty to any degree, no press freedom of any kind. Until recently Riyadh ruthlessly enforced 6th century cultural practices on the population. And Saudi Arabia is more dangerous and disruptive, having attacked Yemen, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, backed jihadist insurgents in Syria, promoted civil war in Libya, supported dictatorship in Bahrain and Egypt, and launched a diplomatic offensive against Qatar, that was supposed to culminate in invasion.

Yet the administration backed Riyadh’s murderous air campaign in Yemen even while criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his brutal practices in that nation’s civil war, in which America underwrote radical forces, including, indirectly, the local al-Qaeda affiliate. Nor did the administration object to any of MbS’s other crimes except the planned attack on Qatar, which former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, not Trump, helped derail. Only when Saudi policy undercut the American shale oil industry did the president bestir himself to chastise Riyadh. At least he cares more for US profits than the Saudi royals.

Egypt is a national prison; the al-Sisi regime is far crueler than the longtime Mubarak dictatorship. The US funds Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule while remaining silent about his gross abuses, including against Coptic Christians. In Bahrain a minority Sunni monarchy relied on brute repression and Saudi troops to crush the democratic aspirations of the Shia majority. Pompeo gives no tearful elegies to the liberties lost there.

The United Arab Emirates looks good only in comparison to Saudi Arabia since Dubai, just one of the principalities, is relatively liberal culturally. Turkey is an emerging dictatorship. However, only the imprisonment of evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson triggered complaints from Washington: the unjust detention of tens of thousands of people, including a number of dual citizens, occasioned no mention by Washington. Israel treats millions of Palestinians as proto-Helots, useful only in providing cheap labor, a status the administration’s "Deal of the Century" would cement.

With this record, it is impossible to treat seriously anything the president or secretary of state say on human rights about Iran or the other usual targets of Washington’s barbs – Cuba, Venezuela, and China. Indeed, even as Chinese President Xi Jinping intensified his broad crackdown on dissent, Trump lavished praise on the Chinese Communist Party head. That continued with the latter’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, until Trump decided that China-bashing might aid his faltering reelection campaign.

Human rights always will pose a foreign policy challenge. Good people should desire to liberate other people who face pervasive and often brutal oppression. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult to reach into other societies and force other governments to change course. Especially since the most important priority for any regime is survival, and political repression is the foundation of any autocracy or dictatorship. Demanding that such regimes democratize is expecting ruling establishments to dismantle themselves.

Moreover, the primary responsibility of the US government is to its own citizens. Yet policymakers like to initiate grand global crusades with other people’s money and lives. Indeed, an active, enthusiastic community of sofa samurai, think tank warriors, and wannabe field marshals fills Washington, always ready to plot interventions for others to die staging.

Thankfully, even true believers rarely believe human rights promotion justifies war, though humanitarianism often is used to baptize military action undertaken for other reasons – in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War and Iraq and Syria more recently, for instance. Iraq is the most dramatic recent example demonstrating how war is not a humanitarian tool. The results were horrific: thousands of dead and tens of thousands of wounded Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of displaced Iraqis, destruction of vibrant communities of Christians and other religious minorities, creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq which morphed into the Islamic State, expanded Iranian influence, and regional chaos.

Short of war, U.S. officials can do little other than huff and puff. Sanctions have become this administration’s favored means to express its criticism of any country, including long-standing allies, such as Germany, for everything from economic competition to political repression. The result usually is widespread impoverishment of populations but only middling discomfort of regime elites. Today the administration sanctimoniously praises itself for hampering reconstruction of war-torn Syria, as if starving the Syrian people will result in Assad’s ouster.

"Smart" sanctions, like those applied against the Iranian judges, hurt fewer people. However, despite providing the illusion of action they usually do little to improve human rights. Has there ever been a case in which the West forced democratic reform by preventing rulers and their supporters from traveling to or banking in the West? None come to mind.

The bully pulpit remains useful and government can help inform the public – the State Department’s annual reports on human rights and religious liberty are useful, especially in judging US foreign policy. Yet this role underscores the grossly cynical nature of the administration’s misuse of human rights. Washington has the greatest knowledge, influence, and moral responsibility in dealing with its closest allies and partners. If Pompeo’s tears for the Iranian people were other than crocodile, he would concentrate on doing serious good elsewhere by halting official support for regimes which actively violate fundamental human rights.

For instance, stop arming and aiding Saudi Arabia as it slaughters Yemeni civilians. Stop financing Egypt as it crushes all dissent. Stop supporting Turkey as it moves from flawed democracy to soft dictatorship. Stop underwriting Israel’s six-decade long occupation over millions of Palestinians. Stop excusing the crimes of favored rulers, such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murder campaign against drug users and sellers. Tragically, this administration has done far more to harm, oppress, and even kill foreigners than to save them.

Unfortunately, many people around the world do not enjoy liberties protected in the US Many Americans understandably want to right wrongs that they see. Although the US government should support human liberty, its responsibility begins at home with the American people.

Internationally, Washington’s approach should reflect the Hippocratic Oath, first do no harm. Stop subsidizing and defending vile oppressors. To paraphrase Christ’s teaching, Uncle Sam should first take the beam out of his own eye before attempting to improve the eyesight of others.

As for the Trump administration, it should stop giving its close friends a pass on what is criminal conduct. After all, we see the results of current policy in Yemen: the US government has turned Americans into accomplices of murder. The best way for Washington to promote human rights is to stop actively violating them.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.