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Trump’s Cynical Abuse of Human Rights Rhetoric

President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Walter Russell Mead makes another far-fetched claim:

America’s alignment with the principles of freedom is both a major foreign-policy advantage and a source of confusion and distress. On the positive side, despite America’s flaws and inconsistencies, people all over the world know that the cause of freedom and that of the U.S. are aligned [bold mine-DL]. This association helps legitimate U.S. power around the world and creates allies in the unlikeliest places—as when Hong Kong protesters carried the American flag or Iranian protesters refused to step on it.

Mead’s account is too simplistic and self-congratulatory. The “flaws and inconsistencies” that he mentions mean that people in many parts of the world do not identify our government’s cause with the cause of freedom because the two are at odds with one another. Our support for the occupation and blockade of Gaza puts the U.S. in opposition to Palestinians’ freedom. Our government’s backing for Saudi and Egyptian despotism aligns us with authoritarian governments that violate human rights on a daily basis. Support for the Saudi coalition’s war on Yemen makes us the enemy of Yemeni civilians.

When protesters in a country with an authoritarian government take up the American flag or refuse to denigrate it, they are making a statement about their own governments far more than they are saying anything about ours. That does not make them our allies, not least since our government isn’t doing anything for them, but it does mean that they want to use that symbol to express their frustration and disgust with their own leaders. They are not “legitimating” U.S. power, and many of them resent the way that U.S. power has been used against them and their country. The Iranians who have taken to the streets to protest the awful destruction of the civilian airliner and the deaths of 176 innocent people are not out to align themselves with the U.S. They are protesting against the recklessness and incompetence of their own leaders.

Try as the Trump administration might to co-opt their cause and exploit their anger for its own purposes, most Iranians hold a more negative view of the U.S. than they have held in many years. Iranian protesters are not our allies or our pawns, and we have to stop looking at their protests and the protests in other nations this way. They have their own concerns and grievances, and our government’s crocodile tears on their behalf don’t matter in the least.

Mead makes an even more preposterous claim later in the column:

Yet the necessities of U.S. foreign policy continue to drive the Trump administration toward the advocacy of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, across the Middle East, in Venezuela and elsewhere even as much of Mr. Trump’s electoral base remains staunchly noninterventionist.

There has always been this double standard at work in U.S. foreign policy, but Trump and Pompeo have made a point of taking this double standard to its logical extreme. India can carry out a massive crackdown in Kashmir lasting months and resulting in widespread human rights violations and an ongoing Internet shutdown, and the Trump administration barely notices. The Saudi government executes political protesters on bogus terrorism charges and concludes a sham trial that lets Khashoggi’s murderers go free, and the administration continues to sing the kingdom’s praises. Egypt’s government locks up dissidents and even U.S. citizens (one of whom has now died in detention), and the president celebrates Sisi as his “favorite dictator.” The Saudi coalition is guilty of numerous war crimes against Yemeni civilians, but that hasn’t caused Trump to bat an eye once in almost three years.

For every empty profession of support for Iranian protesters, Trump has taken many more actions that directly harm the Iranian people: the travel ban, multiple rounds of cruel sanctions, and a policy of relentless hostility that has caused tensions to spike in recent weeks. The fact that the president sometimes pays lip service to the welfare of the people has been strangling for 18 months is meaningless, and Mead’s willingness to take it seriously shows how credulous he can be. The Trump administration is not driven towards “advocacy of human rights” in any of these cases. In each case, Trump and Pompeo have cynically chosen to use human rights rhetoric as a bludgeon against certain governments that they already oppose for other reasons, and when it comes to every other government they are usually as oblivious to human rights abuses as can be.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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