The speech itself was not entirely without merit. “On the positive side, he looked and sounded presidential,” said former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. “The event itself was unprecedented: a president meeting with almost every head of government in the Muslim world. And many of the messages were very good, from the need to join together in this fight, to the need for them to drive extremists out of the mosques, to the critique of Iran.” The speech, however, was deficient in an important respect. Abrams observed that “there was something missing, and that was an understanding of what produces extremism.” He explained, “The president’s approach would work if terrorists were coming from outer space, and our task were solely to organize against them militarily. That is no doubt part of the task — but not all of it, because they are coming from within the societies whose leaders he was addressing. He offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon.” Abrams recalled, “[President George W.] Bush, relying on the Arab Human Development Report of 2002, had a theory: the freedom deficit. Trump had no theory and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.” Despite some pro forma language about “reform,” Trump all but condoned the lack of basic human and political rights in the Muslim world. Abrams observes that “this was a very minor theme in the speech, and he contradicted it by saying that he had not come to lecture them or tell them how to govern.”
At times Trump’s language was cringe-worthy. It is all well and good to explain we have shared “interests” — with regard to fighting Iran and the Islamic State, most clearly. To say we have shared “values” with Saudi Arabia, however, is daft, and shows how deficient is Trump’s understanding of American values and their role in American foreign policy. In so starkly diminishing the importance of human rights, he foolishly sacrificed our moral authority and risked repeating his predecessor’s foolish, unqualified support of Middle Eastern dictators.
When after the speech Trump attempted to scold Iran for its human rights policy, the flaw in this approach was evident. For both Iran and Saudi Arabia, we are not “tell[ing] other people how to live” but standing up for universal human rights. We are not “lectur[ing]” but extolling the importance of recognizing human dignity. And we give a flawed message that modernization and full inclusion in the community of nations are possible without basic rights for women, religious minorities, et al.
One tool, a critical one, the United States has against repressive regimes such as Russia, China, Iran and Cuba, is that we can undermine their legitimacy by appealing to universal values and exposing their cruelty, corruption and repression. We give hope to the oppressed and whittle away at despots’ grip on power by excoriating them for human rights abuses. When, however, we not only ignore but also give unqualified praise to autocratic allies, we leave ourselves open to charges of gross hypocrisy.
Now, though it is possible to raise human rights issues behind closed doors, there is no evidence that is being done under this administration or that close relations with the United States depend on making improvement on human rights. Trump gives the Saudis everything they want (prestige, an arms deal) without getting any commitment to make progress on human rights. That undermines our own standing (“The United States doesn’t care about Muslim people”) but also does our Arab allies no favors. Just look at the Obama policy toward Hosni Mubarak: Coddling an autocrat and playing down the need for progress on human rights led to his downfall and the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood government.
Trump and Saudi royals hit it off. They no doubt share a love of ostentatious wealth, impatience with democracy and unfamiliarity with the rule of law. That creates a creepy impression of a president more at home glad-handing authoritarians than defending American exceptionalism. Wasn’t that his complaint about Obama?