The Skeptics

The Trump Administration's Human-Rights Dilemma

President Donald Trump has demonstrated little interest in promoting human rights abroad. He was a dealmaker, focused on achieving concrete economic and security ends. Worrying about whether other peoples can, say, protest against their government doesn’t seem to concern him.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced this point by skipping the release of Foggy Bottom’s annual human-rights report. Past secretaries typically have appeared to at least claim to support the universal values that Americans say they hold dear. Not this time. Presumably, Secretary Tillerson was “busy.”

Ultimately, a foreign policy is sustainable only if it advances the interests of the people expected to pay and die for it. Protecting America—its population, territory, economic prosperity and constitutional liberties—is the government’s most important duty.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t bar Washington from attempting to advance human liberty in ways consistent with its larger responsibilities. Simply talking about the importance of governments respecting human life and dignity can help.

Moreover, ignoring human rights in the short term often creates long-term trouble. For instance, Washington’s support for brutal, dictatorial regimes undermines American security policy in the Middle East. It is extremely hard to force recalcitrant governments to weaken their control over their people. But underwriting governments that maintain such powers frequently generates popular ill will.

There is much to criticize about the Iranian government, but Washington cannot escape responsibility for having contributed to the creation of the current Islamist regime. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration promoted the overthrow of the elected leftist government. The largely ceremonial Shah turned into a real monarch, oppressing anyone who opposed him and forcibly modernizing the traditional Islamic society. He was eventually overthrown by a disparate coalition, but the better organized and more ruthless clerical forces won control.

Today, Tehran is a U.S. adversary, so foreign-policy hawks routinely decry its human-rights abuses. But Washington is far quieter when confronting the behavior of its regional allies. For instance, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all play important roles in U.S. regional strategy today. (The other Gulf States also are active to varying degrees, but Riyadh is the dominant partner among them.) All have human-rights issues that undermine their effectiveness today and could create new problems tomorrow.

In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a Sunni monarchy holds a Shia-majority population in political bondage. The State Department noted that the most serious human-rights abuses involved “limitation on citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully,” not to mention “restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association,” as well as “lack of due process in the legal system.” Unfortunately, added State, “Beginning in June government action against the political opposition and civil society worsened these problems.”

The authoritarian sectarian-minority government is a prescription for long-term instability. Manama blames Iran for interfering, but Saudi Arabia deployed troops to enforce Bahrain’s undemocratic will. Tehran can claim to be on the side of the angels so long as the Sunni monarchy crushes dissent.

President Trump appears to have a budding bromance with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. However, Cairo has been moving backwards on human rights. As State observed in its report,

The most significant human rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties. Excessive use of force included unlawful killings and torture. Due process problems included the excessive use of preventative custody and pretrial detention, the use of military courts to try civilians, trials involving hundreds of defendants in which authorities did not present evidence on an individual basis, and arrests conducted without warrants or judicial orders.

The Sisi government also has conducted a campaign against journalists and NGOs, especially those backed by foreign money, seeking to cover the regime’s activities. One of the targets is the Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which combats torture. I visited the center a couple years ago and was told the human-rights situation was much worse than under Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the peaceful 2011 revolution. Yet the government is threatening the center with closure. Add to political repression economic problems and the Sisi regime looks vulnerable to internal, if not popular, challenge.

Iraq has been ravaged by the Islamic State, which has committed atrocities galore. However, Baghdad has its own serious human-rights problems. The State Department noted that “civilian authorities were not always able to maintain effective control of all security forces.” Moreover, “Sectarian hostility, widespread corruption, and lack of transparency at all levels of government and society weakened the government’s authority and worsened effective human rights protections.” The security forces “committed some human rights violations, and there continued to be reports of [government-allied Shia militias] killing, torturing, kidnapping, and extorting civilians.”