PRESIDENT TRUMP’S distorted foreign policy was exemplified this week in the contrast between his meeting with Arab autocrats, on whom he lavished goodwill, and U.S. NATO allies, whom he harshly and publicly critiqued. Last weekend, Mr. Trump promised Saudi Arabia and other Sunni dictatorships that they “will never question our support,” adding, “We are not here to lecture.” But on Thursday he declined to restate the U.S. commitment to defend its democratic European allies if they are attacked, as Article 5 of the NATO treaty provides. Instead, Mr. Trump restated his wrongheaded and erroneous charge that allied governments “owe massive amounts” for military defense, and quarreled with the president of the European Council over climate change and the threat posed by Russia.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump gamely joined in a chauvinistic, males-only sword dance. In Brussels, he was captured on videotape as he rudely shoved aside Montenegro’s prime minister to position himself at the center of a group photo.
The president’s aides and apologists were reduced to arguing, as they frequently must, that the words he utters and the images he creates are of little consequence. Other senior administration officials have confirmed the commitment to Article 5, they said; and Mr. Trump was merely giving the Montenegrin leader’s arm a friendly tug.
Unfortunately, what the U.S. president says and the impressions he makes do have consequences. One good example of that came Tuesday, when Bahraini security forces stormed an opposition encampment just two days after Mr. Trump promised the Persian Gulf nation’s king that there would be no more “strain” between their governments. Those strains, of course, concerned the Sunni regime’s crackdown on its Shiite opposition, which has been escalating in recent months.
The United States has a challenging relationship with Bahrain, which is at once a key ally that hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet and a conspicuous violator of human rights. The Obama administration struggled to strike a balance between preserving the alliance and using its leverage to mitigate the abuses. We and other human rights advocates frequently criticized President Barack Obama for too easily accepting Bahrain’s repression. But at least the administration tried: Mr. Obama publicly called on the regime to liberalize and held up arms sales, including of F-16 warplanes, when it did not.
That was the pressure Mr. Trump promised to eradicate when he met with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Sunday. “Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration,” he said. In essence, the president promised not to subject this Arab autocracy to the harsh words and ambivalent defense commitment that he offered days later to the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.
Two days after his Sunday pronouncement came the bloodiest act of repression by Bahraini security forces in years, a raid in which at least five people were reported killed and hundreds arrested. The consequences of Mr. Trump’s performance in Brussels may be less immediately evident — but there, too, there will be damage.
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