Whatever the eventual consequences of the Saudi Arabian regime’s suspected murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump’s initial response indicated much about the priorities of his “America First” foreign policy. His instincts were commercial and transactional — he voiced a concern that the United States might lose defense contracts in a confrontation with the Saudi government. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” he said. Trump’s reaction was nativist, as he pointed out that “Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.” And after consulting with the Saudi king, the president seemed determined to provide an alibi, raising the prospect of “rogue killers,” which brought back memories of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Trump — drafting behind growing global outrage — has since pledged “severe punishment” if the Saudis were actually involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. But can there be any doubt that Trump would ignore the situation if ignoring it were costless? Trump began his diplomatic confrontation with Saudi Arabia by pointing out (and exaggerating) the kingdom’s economic leverage against us — the deal completely stripped of art. And the administration’s conspicuous apathy was reinforced by a false retweeted attack on Khashoggi by Donald Trump Jr.
It is difficult to trace causality in foreign affairs, but there is little doubt that Trump has reduced the cost of oppression and political murder in the world by essentially declaring it none of America’s business. And when you reduce the cost of something, you get more of it. U.S. indifference on human rights abuses is taken by other governments as a form of permission.
The story of a journalist killed while picking up documents for his wedding is particularly powerful. But the aggregation of such horrors — the sum of killing and human misery at this historical moment — is stunning. The Trump era is also — perhaps not coincidentally — the age of mass atrocities. And the United States’ president is not concerned enough to be ashamed of it.
There is the Saudi war in Yemen, which has caused massive displacement, hunger and disease. The Trump administration has certified that the Saudis are taking sufficient measures to prevent civilian casualties. The U.S. military provides aerial refueling support for bombing raids. The United Nations, meanwhile, has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of war crimes, including arbitrary detention, torture and rape.
Syria remains a bleeding wound. Hundreds of thousands have died. More than 5 million people have left the country as refugees. More than 6 million are internally displaced. During the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the United States has slashed the number of refugees it will admit to the lowest level in four decades. And Trump has turned these suffering people into political scapegoats, feeding unfounded fears that they may be Trojan horse terrorist threats.
In China, perhaps a million ethnic Uighurs are being held in reeducation camps. Human rights groups report forced displacement, family separations, and psychological and physical torture. Yet the whole of Trump’s relationship with China seems determined by the level of our trade deficit. Human rights are hardly an afterthought.
Then there is the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar — involving the burning of villages, rape and attacks on civilians — which has caused more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. According to a State Department report, “Multiple witnesses report soldiers throwing infants and small children into open fires or burning huts.” Yet the Trump administration has refused to designate these as “crimes against humanity” or “genocide.”
Then there is South Sudan’s five-year civil war, in which perhaps 380,000 people have died and 2.5 million people have fled the country. Decades of U.S. effort to help give birth to that nation are being washed away on Trump’s watch.
And then there is North Korea, which is guilty of mass enslavement, torture, rape, forced abortions and the extermination of suspected regime opponents. Yet Trump recounts how he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “fell in love.”
I conduct this tour of global horrors not to argue that the United States could easily resolve each one, but to point out that they don’t even register in the president’s priorities. This does violence to American ideals. But it also illustrates a foreign policy law. A vacuum of U.S. leadership is not occupied by good and pleasant things. It is filled by ruthless power politics, aimless allies, aggressive authoritarians, gathering threats and cruelty without consequence. And the trail of evidence leads from the villages of Myanmar to a consulate in Istanbul.