Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came before the Council on Foreign Relations last week to, among other things, pronounce human rights as at “the heart” of her mission. She mentioned the term “human rights” about 30 times, leaving no doubt about her seriousness. Later that day the State Department announced that it supports the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain — reversing an Obama-era policy regarding that country’s nasty record on human rights.
Ambassador, get with the program.
Ah, but what is the program? In foreign affairs, it is hard to say. President Trump has been all over the lot, initially questioning the venerable “one-China” policy and then reversing himself. In the Middle East, he said he would accept a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio or, come to think of it, a one-state solution. Either way, there could be more settlements in the West Bank or, upon consideration, maybe not so many.
It is, however, Russia policy where Haley’s admirable aspirations collide with Trump’s wall of ignorance or avarice. Haley has actually talked about the Russia that exists — conqueror of Crimea, aggressor in Ukraine, and human-rights despoiler. Trump, however, has yet to call Vladimir Putin what he is or walk back his lavish praise of the Russian leader as being on the same moral level as Germany’s Angela Merkel. American foreign policy, like Trump’s mind, is a mess.
In this miasma, one thing seems clear: Trump does not give a damn about human rights. If he does, he has managed to restrain himself from emphasizing it in the campaign or since assuming the presidency. A recent report on conditions in Syrian prisons — wholesale torture, rape, starvation, etc. — elicited not a peep of a tweet, and in the runup to this week’s meeting at Mar-a-Lago between Trump and China’s Xi Jinping, human rights is not being mentioned.
This is to be expected. Everything about Trump strongly suggests he is indifferent to human rights because he is indifferent to suffering. In contrast to Bill Clinton, who felt everyone’s pain, Trump feels only his own. The prime example, because it involves actual pain, was to demean Sen. John McCain’s suffering as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and to disparage his heroism because he had been captured. The odor of that remark not only clings to Trump, but to everyone who disregarded it and jumped on the Trump bandwagon.
Trump also mocked the physical disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. While that brought a gasp from some people, it was really nothing compared to what Trump said about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the couple who lost a son in Iraq. Trump likened what they had “sacrificed” to what he called the “sacrifices” he made building his business — all that overtime, all those conference calls, those bankruptcies. Who were the Khans to complain? “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard.”
If ever Trump releases his tax returns, we will undoubtedly learn that his charitable giving peaked at a pittance. He is renowned in Gotham for being a deadbeat — bills not paid, commitments not honored. He will not give back because, clearly, he thinks he’s deserving of what he’s got and others definitely are not.
Sometimes the only reason I can think of for the United States to emphasize human rights is empathy — the desire to end pain and suffering and to have others treated as you would want yourself to be treated. (There’s a rule there, somewhere.) But there’s a pragmatic side to it as well. As the most powerful nation on Earth, we have insisted on a modicum of human decency. We used to be good at setting the rules.
The United States fundamentally established the United Nations and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Haley’s emphasis on human rights is not something new at the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt was there before her, and her immediate predecessor, Samantha Power, made her name as a journalist and activist in the area of human rights. Her book “ ‘A Problem from Hell:’ America and the Age of Genocide” commended her to Barack Obama. (Remember when presidents read books?)
Good luck to Haley. She was indifferently appointed to a post Trump does not care about, and she articulates policies that contradict the very heart of Trump’s heartlessness. She is a foreign policy ingenue — new, fresh but out of step with the president. She will learn. He, after all, will not.
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