PRESIDENT TRUMP justifiably takes umbrage at the wrongful treatment of Americans abroad. Of course, the U.S. government should do everything it can to help citizens in trouble, and a surge of pride and relief is warranted when someone returns home after an unjust ordeal. Yet Mr. Trump seems eager to invest the power of his office in these rescue missions while simultaneously ignoring larger issues of human rights.
This week, he and Vice President Pence warned Turkey of what Mr. Trump called “large sanctions” over the wrongful imprisonment of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr. Trump apparently thought he had a deal with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Mr. Brunson’s release and was infuriated when a Turkish court let Mr. Brunson out of prison only to impose house arrest. The case has become a rallying cry for the evangelical Christian community in the United States, a key part of the president’s political base. We share Mr. Trump’s frustration about Mr. Brunson’s plight; he has been unjustly accused of terrorism and imprisoned for 21 months by a NATO ally.
It does not subtract from Mr. Brunson’s plight, however, to point out that it is part of a broader human rights disaster unfolding in Turkey, which was once a thriving democracy. Mr. Erdogan, steering his nation toward dictatorship, has wrongly imprisoned tens of thousands of academics, journalists and government officials, among others, on specious grounds of being sympathetic to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric and political figure whom Mr. Erdogan blames for inciting a failed coup against him two years ago. Mr. Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania, denies that he did so. In his drive for power, the Turkish leader has largely destroyed or silenced Turkey’s once robust free press. He has refashioned the presidency to give himself wide executive powers with few checks. He has long agitated to get his hands on Mr. Gulen, but fortunately the United States has stood firm against his obsessive demands.
U.S. relations with Turkey are growing darker. Congress has included language in the annual defense policy bill that would pause the process of selling 100 F-35 fighters to Turkey, in part out of concern with Mr. Erdogan’s moves toward purchasing sophisticated Russian air defense systems but also because of Turkey’s abysmal human rights record. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has been largely silent about Ankara’s retreat from democracy. He seems to admire strongmen who repress their people’s basic rights, rather than those courageous enough to stand up for them.
Mr. Trump’s “America First” ideology is terribly warped if it means America only — if Mr. Trump demands freedom for a U.S. citizen and neglects the maltreatment of tens of thousands of Turks who have been similarly incarcerated. “America First” can’t mean willfully abandoning long-held U.S. values, primary among them the conviction that basic rights are universal in their appeal and application, whether it be Mr. Brunson or the Turkish journalists and professors in the next cell.