Analysis & Opinions - New York Daily News

What Does Trump Stand For? His Administration's Dithering on the Saudis Forces Us to Ask

| Oct. 23, 2018

Written by: Errol Louis

The grisly assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi murder squad — and the Saudi regime’s delays, denials and ludicrous falsehoods about the killing — forces the United States to grapple with our traditional role in upholding human rights worldwide.

In years past, U.S. Presidents boasted about our nation’s commitment to condemning and shaming the world’s despots and dictators over their treatment of dissidents and prisoners of conscience.

Not anymore. The White House has been dithering for weeks, professing ignorance and defending the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as his government offers one grotesquely unbelievable alibi after another.

The White House finds itself in a tough spot: The Saudi regime, while repressive, has been an island of relative prosperity and stability in a volatile region. All the more reason the Trump administration should speak clearly and publicly about America’s non-negotiable commitment to human rights.

But we’ve gone in the opposite direction. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy— a mandatory statement of priorities to Congress — barely mentions human rights and instead touted something called “principled realism.”

“What’s missing from this document is any emphasis that the U.S. has to promote democracy and human freedom, which most American Presidents — John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan — have felt was important,” said Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former undersecretary of state who held top diplomatic and national security posts at the height of the Cold War. “[President Trump] is weakening us on these essential foundations of American power.”

That’s not just an elite or academic point of view. A poll by the Democracy Project think tank earlier this year found that 71% of respondents “favor the U.S. government taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.” And a nearly identical 67% agreed with the statement that “when other countries are democratic, rather than dictatorships, it often helps make the U.S. a little safer.”

It was fashionable during the Obama years for leaders, especially Democrats, to talk about “soft power” — the values, including cultural openness, transparency, respect for the rights of minority and an independent judiciary — as a key source of American influence.

I recently talked about the issue with Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I wouldn't describe this as principled realism, it’s more like unprincipled realism. It’s almost amoral — not immoral, not moral, but amoral,” Haas said. “We see that in the way we've cozied up to various authoritarians around the world. I do think we've forfeited a lot of influence. And I think it’s short-sighted.”

No less a figure than President Franklin Roosevelt underscored the link between American power and American values in his famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, the last State of the Union address before the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into World War II.

It’s a remarkable document, delivered at a time when Nazi Germany had invaded and occupied nearly all of Europe. Roosevelt spends most of the speech begging Congress to allocate more billions to build tanks and warships to prepare for what he called “The Great Emergency.”

But he also makes an explicit argument for international human rights as an essential government goal: “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone,” he said.

More to the point, said Roosevelt: “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

It was true then, and even more so now.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:What Does Trump Stand For? His Administration's Dithering on the Saudis Forces Us to Ask.” New York Daily News, October 23, 2018.