Even before its attack on Ukraine, the Russian Federation was reviled in the US for abandoning the pretense that its political system was open or free. Freedom House rates Russia as "Not Free," earning a paltry 19 out of 200 points. Fearing opposition to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has moved much closer to a totalitarian system. Even so opponents to the war are breaking through intermittently, more than in some other unfree systems.
Yet President Biden is turning to some of the worst human rights abusers for help against Russia and its war on Ukraine. It’s a bit like empowering a gaggle of demons to fight the devil, a dubious decision in the best of circumstances.
For instance, President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, supposedly to warn the latter against aiding Moscow economically or militarily. Despite the public threat of sanctions against the People’s Republic of China, implicit likely was the promise that the US would soften its campaign against Beijing. The administration can’t very well treat the PRC as a political piñata if the US expects China to leave Russia, recently declared to be a partner without limits, in the lurch.
In fact, China hawks overestimate Beijing’s power and risk turning the Chinese people as well as government into an enemy. However, treating the PRC better in order to wage fiercer economic war on Moscow is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. On human rights, China is significantly worse than Russia.
The PRC’s Freedom House rating is a dismal 9. Of the People’s Republic, said Freedom House: "China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to tighten control over all aspects of life and governance, including the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious practice, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined an earlier series of modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades. Human rights activists and lawyers continue to speak out, though at great personal cost."
Turkey is another autocracy whose support is being sought against Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forged a working relationship with Putin, despite differences on important issues. That has created huge problems for the US and NATO, since the latter can ill afford a 5th column within the alliance. Washington has pressed Ankara for support, but the latter opposes sanctions on Russia. Although the Biden administration previously criticized Erdogan for his domestic repression and dalliance with Moscow, those issues appear to have dropped from the two nations’ ongoing dialogue.
Turkey also is not a free society, rating 32 from Freedom House. This undercuts the moral preening which NATO regularly engages in. Explained Freedom House: "President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. After initially passing some liberalizing reforms, the AKP government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties and has pursued a wide-ranging crackdown on critics and opponents since 2016. Constitutional changes in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president, removing key checks and balances. While Erdogan continues to dominate Turkish politics, a deepening economic crisis and opportunities to further consolidate political power have given the government new incentives to suppress dissent and limit public discourse."
The Biden administration also has been circling the globe attempting to find new oil supplies to make up for prohibiting the purchase of Russian oil. Selective boycotts rarely work in an international market since oil is fungible and can be resold by third parties. Nevertheless, an oil ban makes for good political theater and if widespread could seriously inconvenience the Kremlin.
Alas, in its search the Biden administration is abandoning the pretense that it cares about human rights. For instance, US officials flew to Caracas to seek a deal with Venezuela. Sanctions should be lifted – but in principle, not to strengthen the economic attack on Russia. The Trump administration policy of starving people who already were starving was a moral abomination and, unsurprisingly, failed to convince the Maduro government to surrender. If Washington simply dropped sanctions, oil would again flow freely.
There was more than a little irony in Biden’s approach. Venezuela enjoys a Freedom House rating of just 14, worse than Russia. Detailed the organization: "Venezuela’s democratic institutions have deteriorated since 1999, but conditions have grown sharply worse in recent years due to harsher crackdowns on the opposition and the ruling party relying on widely condemned elections to control all government branches. The authorities have closed off virtually all channels for political dissent, restricting civil liberties and prosecuting perceived opponents without regard for due process. The country’s severe humanitarian crisis has left millions struggling to meet basic needs, and driven mass emigration."
Even more shameful was the Biden administration playing supplicant to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and asking them to hike oil production. Unsurprisingly, they dismissed the request. Of course, higher prices are in their interest, and they are used to Washington fulfilling their every wish. Trump administration officials traveling to Riyadh began every visit by kissing the feet of Crown Prince Mohammed "Slice ‘n Dice" bin Salman and maintained an appropriately submissive posture throughout. Apparently, the royals refused to take Biden’s calls and indicated that they expected a return to groveling as usual to simply consider Washington’s request.
This should come as no surprise. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia gets just 7 points from Freedom House, placing it in the bottom ten of 210 countries and territories. Its practices are awful, as one would expect from a country whose ruler turned a consulate into an abattoir and murdered and dismembered a journalist critical of the regime. Explained Freedom House: "Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative."
United Arab Emirates did better, but still came in below Russia, at 17. Despite its sophisticated image, largely derived from the modern territory of Dubai, UAE is an oppressive dictatorship. Said Freedom House: "Limited elections are held for a federal advisory body, but political parties are banned, and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers. The civil liberties of both citizens and noncitizens, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population, are subject to significant restrictions."
Even worse, the KSA and UAE have spent more than seven years waging a vicious war against Yemen, the poorest nation in the Mideast even before the conflict. Although the insurgents, led by Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, are no friends of liberty, human rights groups affirm that the vast majority of the nearly 400,000 civilian deaths are attributable to the royal alliance and its hirelings. Absent Russian use of nuclear weapons, it is very unlikely that the Ukraine war will come anywhere close to that many casualties, let alone deaths.
Finally, the Biden administration is attempting to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. In fact, there is good reason to do so since the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure" campaign turned into a complete bust, a foolish favor to the Saudi and Israeli governments, whose preference always was for an American war against Tehran. Still, to the extent Biden is making additional concessions to close the deal in hopes of applying more pressure on Russia, he is helping tyranny to punish tyranny.
Freedom House gave Iran a 14 rating. The group explained its assessment: "The Islamic Republic of Iran holds elections regularly, but they fall short of democratic standards due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council, an unelected body that disqualifies all candidates it deems insufficiently loyal to the clerical establishment. Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. These institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, play a major role in the suppression of dissent and other restrictions on civil liberties."
In short, the Biden administration has turned to a real rogue’s gallery of oppressive and criminal regimes to punish Russia. Most actually are worse than Moscow, or at least were until Putin launched his brutal crackdown to squelch criticism of his invasion of Ukraine. Hopefully Biden will ultimately end sanctions and other restrictions that should have been removed long ago, but his reasons for doing so are making a mockery of his professed support for human rights.
Some on the right denounced Biden for daring to speak the truth about America’s unsavory friends. Wrote the Hudson Institute’s Peter Rough: "The Biden administration is developing policy for a world that no longer exists. The era when the United States could badger its allies one moment and demand cooperation from them the next is over. A new Sino-Russian axis has formed to challenge the United States. To treat our allies with contempt only encourages them to hedge at a time when we can afford it least."
In his view, apparently, Washington must become what it claims to oppose and embrace the worst oppressors and war criminals to gain international advantage. Such benefits are likely to prove transitory. For its principles to be taken seriously, the US must at least criticize killers and other miscreants, even if holding them responsible proves impractical. Ignoring such misbehavior is to treat the victims with contempt.
Anyway, despite their displeasure at US officials speaking the truth, such states still usually remain within Washington’s orbit since they benefit greatly from its patronage. Sure, they often play footsie with Moscow or Beijing hoping to get the US to up its offer. But which among would prefer to become satellites of Beijing or Moscow?
Rough complained about the administration’s failure to envelop the KSA, UAE, Turkey, and Poland with love and bestow sufficient hugs and kisses. However, who needs whom more? The foregoing governments remain the supplicants, not the superpower. If nothing else, the Saudi and Emirati royals remain dependent on American weapons, which fill their arsenals. Erdogan had good reason not to fall into Russia’s orbit even before the Ukraine war. Poland has nowhere to go, especially when requesting a NATO garrison. Will Warsaw ask Luxembourg or Montenegro to step in instead?
Moreover, if Washington fails to criticize allied regimes for their brutality, then it will earn the wrath of victims who eventually free themselves. And the US will lack credibility in criticizing adversaries for their human rights violations. For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo consistently treated human rights as a political weapon, dissipating his credibility. The Trump administration’s policy of ostentatiously protecting Crown Prince Slice ‘n Dice from accountability for his crimes while denouncing the Iranians abusing their people highlighted American favoritism and hypocrisy.
The Biden administration hopes to increase pressure on Russia. However, Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, though criminal and unprovoked aggression, poses no meaningful security threat to America. Washington must consider the price that it is paying to enlist and empower a gaggle of even more oppressive regimes in order to punish Russia. Why not do the right thing for the right reason for a change?
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.