Dancing with Dictators: Trump’s Human Rights Policy

This article appeared on The American Conservative on July 3, 2020.
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Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried out a new joke at a DC comedy club’s open mike night. Said Pompeo: “Whether it’s freedom for the people of Hong Kong, human rights for the Rohingya, all across the world, @realDonaldTrump has understood that it’s important for America to be a true beacon for freedom and liberty and human rights around the globe.”

Unfortunately, Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t in the audience and available to comment. But the joke did generate uproarious laughter in the U.S. capital and around the world. Even the president, who only a few days before acknowledged that he refused to sanction Chinese officials over brutal repression of the Uyghurs in order to protect his trade deal, had a good laugh.

Pompeo is an obnoxious partisan and foolish uber‐​hawk, but is not normally known for purveying fantasy. Yet having played a major role in implementing U.S. foreign policy—for instance, his lips, no less than President Donald Trump’s, have been firmly attached to the Saudi crown prince’s derriere—he is well aware that the president is not just uninterested in foreign repression but actually prefers the company of brutes, thugs, dictators, killers, and aggressors.

Consider just a few of the officials the president has waxed eloquent in describing as friends: Mohammed bin Salman, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong‐​un, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel Fattah al‐​Sisi, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One suspects that it would take only one summit for the president to be spouting effusive praise of Raoul Castro, Nicolas Maduro, and Ali Khamenei, despite their past foreign policy differences. Indeed, Trump might even have gotten along with Muammar Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden had they not prematurely journeyed across the river Styx.

Human rights never was going to fare well in an administration dominated by a transactional view of foreign policy. After all, tyrants, not victims, typically have favors to trade. There isn’t much those jailed in Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Russia, Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere have to offer.

But the issue is difficult even for presidents who actually are concerned about the well‐​being of others. President Jimmy Carter elevated the issue, yet he went to Tehran where he toasted the Shah’s dedication to democracy, a major laugh‐​line for the many critics arrested and tortured by Savak, the Iranian dictator’s secret police. President Ronald Reagan gave wonderful speeches promoting liberty but supported decidedly illiberal insurgents in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America. He also did not hesitate working with dictators, such as South Korea’s Chun Doo‐​hwan.

Nevertheless, human rights matters. Saving lives and expanding freedom should be of concern to anyone of good will. It is possible for Americans to do good in the world. They should do so in government when possible—and consistent with their fundamental duty to protect America and advance its interests.
The core of foreign policy, its vital end, is to serve the American people, who create, sustain, and rely upon the national government. Uncle Sam is their agent, not a global crusader entitled to squander lives and wealth in a global game of Risk.

Nevertheless, not every means is appropriate for advancing perceived American interests. War, conquest, and oppression are inherently suspect tools. So is support for countries engaging in war, conquest, and oppression. There sometimes are hard choices, but they usually are rare and temporary, last resorts necessary to achieve essential objectives.

Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War has resulted in not just hubris but moral blindness. Military intervention has become just another policy option, often the default for a government which has lost the ability to negotiate and persuade. It is difficult to imagine what objective could justify the Iraq debacle, with thousands of American dead, tens of thousands of American wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, millions of Iraqis displaced, destruction of indigenous religious minorities, and creation of al‐​Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State. Similarly, what possibly could warrant supporting one of the world’s most oppressive states, Saudi Arabia, in its aggressive war against Yemen for selfish geopolitical purposes, which caused a humanitarian catastrophe? Yet successive presidents have made Americans complicit with murder and mayhem.

Another offense against morality and decency is supporting tyrants. The Trump administration seems almost enthusiastic when given the opportunity to empower and promote vile oppressors. For instance, it appears that no crime by the Saudis would lessen administration support; rather, harming the domestic shale oil industry finally drew a presidential rebuke. Only when Turkey imprisoned an evangelical American pastor championed by Trump’s domestic political allies did the administration utter the words human rights to Erdogan.

Slaughtering drug users and sellers was no concern in dealing with Manila.

Of course, tolerating an ally’s flaws sometimes might be necessary when American security is threatened and there really is a lesser of two evils, such as military‐​dominated South Korea facing off against the totalitarian Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The greatest, and perhaps toughest, instance was allying with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Both regimes were evil but the latter was more aggressive and dangerous. However, involvement in such cases should require an overriding justification. Thankfully, these trade‐​offs are much diminished without a Cold War.

For instance, tensions with Russia, a minimal threat compared to the Soviet Union, cannot justify arming Turkey and tolerating the behavior of its wannabe dictator. There is no Middle Eastern danger that warrants overlooking Israel’s oppressive colonial occupation policy toward the Palestinians. Even easier: there is no cause to arm the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it brutalizes its citizens, threatens its neighbors, and destabilizes its region. On almost every measure Riyadh is worse than Iran, the usual bugaboo used to justify every intervention and compromise with oppression made by Washington in the Mideast.

Tougher is deciding how the U.S. should try to promote human rights. Americans first should get their own house in order. Claiming to be “a city on a hill” while failing in major ways—think of pre‐​Civil Rights America, with African‐​Americans segregated, abused, and oppressed. Hypocrisy also is destructive. The Trump administration explicitly decided to use human rights as a weapon against opponents while saying nothing about friends. Such cynicism—for instance, waxing eloquent about Iranian violations of human life and dignity while dancing with the Saudi royals—exposed the policy as pure cynicism.

Prudence also is a limiting factor. The Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China were the most murderous states in modern human history, resulting in tens of millions of deaths (though Nazi Germany represented a unique evil, bent on genocide of the Jewish people). However, the only way to end their brutal oppression would have been world war and nuclear conflict, which would have caused far more death, destruction, and chaos. Imagine trying to defeat, conquer, occupy, and rebuild those two nations.

Economic sanctions have become the solution du jour, especially for Congress, filled with 535 wannabe secretaries of state. However, truly effective penalties—like those imposed on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, do more to impoverish, starve, and kill average folks than regime elites. It has always been so. Saddam Hussein still lived in luxury despite sanctions against Iraq. Cuban dissidents complained to me when I visited that the U.S. embargo was a convenient excuse for regime failures. I met opposition activists in Yugoslavia who told me that allied sanctions left their supporters penniless while enabling the government to profit from smuggling.

Most important, governments are reluctant to fold under pressure on issues viewed as vital, such as regime preservation. It is notable that in no case so far has the Trump administration succeeded in changing any nation’s policy as a result of sanctions. Not one, even after constantly toughening “maximum pressure” regimes. The policy has been a complete bust.

Yet lesser measures are almost frivolous, mostly designed to make legislators appear concerned. For instance, the latest legislation targeting China over both the imprisonment of Uyghurs and crackdown in Hong Kong directs the president to sanction Chinese officials, such as Xinjiang’s provincial chief, for their role. Does anyone imagine Beijing changing its policy because America denies a tourist visa to a high‐​ranking apparatchik? Seriously? While there is nothing wrong with singling out individual offenders, no one should believe that doing so will change anything.

Which leaves the unsatisfactory reality that there usually isn’t a lot the U.S. can do. The president can and should use his or her bully pulpit to promote liberty, life, and dignity. Washington should engage other governments over their abuses and crimes and push for the release and rehabilitation of victims. So should activists—publicize and shame the horrors that are so common around the world. Creating even imperfect international mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Council and Cold War era Helsinki Declaration, can be helpful. Washington cannot base foreign policy on human rights but should follow a consistent and energetic strategy to use whatever opportunities develop to do good internationally.

As part of such an effort the potential impact of naming and shaming should never be underestimated.

Pompeo’s recent claim could only generate laughter since it was widely recognized as false, even ridiculous. In contrast, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the Evil Empire and call on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall were recognized as reflecting a deeply held if imperfect commitment to human life, liberty and dignity.

Obviously, such rhetoric did not end the Cold War. But it helped give hope to oppressed peoples and encourage a Soviet leader who had a humane core, Mikhail Gorbachev. Then Gorbachev led the way in dismantling the mammoth system of state oppression, perhaps the greatest single act of liberation in human history. Future presidents should take a similar approach.

Doug Bandow

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.