All three regimes have abysmal human rights records. Saudi Arabia has beheaded dissidents, subjugated women and detained female activists who have pushed for reforms, and murdered and dismembered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The United Arab Emirates is home to torture, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances. Egypt’s dictatorship has carried out extrajudicial killings and has tortured activists.
What has Trump’s response been to these horrors, both before and after he became president? He has praised Saudi Arabia’s theocratic ruler for doing a “spectacular job,” built a golf course in Dubai and said that Egypt’s leader is his “favorite dictator.” And now, as a closing act, he is arming these regimes with U.S.-made weapons and cutting-edge military technology.
The official justification for these sales is to act as a counterweight to Iran, the United States’ primary geopolitical adversary in the Middle East. But given past behavior, we know how these weapons will likely be used. Despots will use them to help facilitate war crimes in places such as Yemen and the Sinai Peninsula while maintaining an iron grip over their own populations — all aided and abetted by the U.S. government.
Of course, Trump is not the first U.S. president to support some of the world’s worst tyrants. The stain of the United States’ long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia is a bipartisan one, and Democrats and Republicans alike have gotten in bed with abusive autocrats from southeast Asia to Latin America. But Trump’s cheerleading for despots has created a disturbing legacy in two ways that are significantly different compared with — and much worse than — his predecessors.
First, Trump spent his term openly endorsing dictators without any caveats. Past presidents were two-faced when it came to their foreign policies toward dictators. They sold weapons to autocratic allies, but they did so with public chastisement of the regime and private pressure to reduce human rights abuses. That chastisement and pressure weren’t close to enough, but they were significantly better than nothing. They sent an important signal to the rest of the world that the United States doesn’t unequivocally celebrate regimes that assassinate journalists, behead dissidents or make enemies “disappear” with a one-way ticket to a torture chamber. As a result, murderous despots across the globe at least worried that human rights abuses could result in consequences. Not so under Trump.
Second, and even more disturbing, there is a credible reason to believe that these arms sales could be motivated, not by U.S. security interests, but by Trump’s financial interests once he leaves office. Trump’s business ties to Saudi Arabia go back decades. He had companies registered in the kingdom as recently as December 2016. In the UAE, his conflicts of interest are too long to list, but Trump himself acknowledged that he had been courted by the regime for a new multibillion-dollar investment deal just before his inauguration. He turned down the deal, which would have created severely negative media attention in the early days of his administration.
But once Trump leaves the White House, odds are good that he will cash in. Seen in that light, the recently approved arms sales and military technology transfers are even more worrying. Are they just the beginning of a quid pro quo?
President-elect Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. While working to shore up a battered democracy at home, he must also send a clear and decisive signal to the world that he is serious about supporting democracy abroad. That includes symbolic gestures, such as photo-ops with dissidents rather than the dictators who relish crushing them. But it also should include a measured rethink of arms sales and military technology transfers to regimes who use weapons to commit war crimes. Biden should put America’s autocratic allies on notice that U.S. support will become contingent on meaningful, benchmarked progress on human rights and democratic reform.
President Ronald Reagan once spoke of the United States as a “shining city upon a hill” and a “beacon” for all the peoples of the world who are trapped by the darkness of tyranny. Too often, it has not lived up to that image. And for the past four years, Trump has painted the image of a United States that consistently sides with tyrants. Biden now has an opportunity to reverse Trump’s catastrophic foreign policy. He should take it.