As President Trump travels abroad for the first time to set forth his administration’s foreign policy, he is also sending a clear message: Under his administration, concerns about human rights that U.S. presidents often carry with them will instead remain at the water’s edge.
In search of bigger deals on combating terrorism and curbing Iran’s influence in the region, Trump made it clear during his weekend speech in Saudi Arabia that the United States would not allow human rights concerns to bog down cooperation with authoritarian governments.
“We are not here to lecture,” Trump said Sunday before an audience of about 50 political leaders of Muslim nations, many of which are led by strongmen. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values.”
During his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, Trump is expected to emphasize the kind of “America first” posture that he has advocated for since the presidential campaign, one that prioritizes core U.S. economic and security interests over spreading democratic values abroad. Aides have insisted that Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other officials privately raised human rights concerns, and they point to the April release of an American aid worker in Egypt as evidence of the success of this quieter strategy.
In myriad ways so far during Trump trip, the administration has reinforced that message by publicly sidestepping issues such the treatment of the media, women and dissenters.
Political protests in Saudi Arabia can be punishable by a death sentence and freedom of expression is severely limited. But Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross highlighted the absence of dissenters as a sign of the “genuinely good mood” during Trump’s visit.
Trump left off any mention of restrictions on political dissent in the kingdom, even as he called for the people of Iran to “have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
And Sunday, a lone event on Trump’s schedule aimed at bolstering civil society in Saudi Arabia was scrapped, leaving it to the president’s eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, to deliver a message of tolerance and openness to Saudi youth during a Twitter forum.
“His approach, so far, to the trip has solidified this administration’s approach to human rights and foreign policy,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “The failure to mention any human rights issues and the statement about not imposing our values is just proof that the Trump administration’s policy is to not bring it up in public and who knows if they bring it up in private.”
Trump’s travels have been hailed as a smashing success by the administration, and he has marveled at the warmth and hospitality extended to him by Saudi leaders. But there has been almost no attention paid to the concerns that have made Saudi Arabia rank among the most repressive nations on Earth, including strict controls on the media, women and political society.
“I think the way you address those human rights issues and women’s rights issues is to improve the conditions in the region,” Tillerson said in an interview on Fox News Sunday defending the president’s silence on human rights. “And today, conditions in the region are under a lot of stress because of the threat of terrorism, the threat that Iran poses to instability in the region.
“But, you know, the primary reason we’re here today is to confront this threat of terrorism,” he added.
Critics say the approach has real consequences, including weakening U.S. standing abroad and potentially encouraging autocrats throughout the world.
Trump’s sanguine visit to Saudi Arabia also came on the heels of a messy brawl on the streets of Washington last week between peaceful protesters and the bodyguards of the increasingly autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had just left a chummy Oval Office meeting with Trump that day.
“Four months in, you are already seeing episodes like Erdogan’s goons beating up protesters in Washington, D.C. Just imagine what the next three years will bring,” said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First. “What this administration is going out of its way to signal is that it just doesn’t care about the people in the countries that we’re doing business with.”
Jeffrey Prescott, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Gulf states from 2015 to January, said that repressive, noninclusive governments in the Middle East have contributed to the rise of extremism, making the region less stable. But instead of publicly speaking out about that, Trump has offered “a kind of reflexive support, or even an attempt to please, whatever authoritarian leaders President Trump is taking to,” Prescott said. “I don’t think that advances our interests over the long term.”
Separate from the president, Ivanka Trump engaged in her own agenda aimed at drawing attention to women’s empowerment during a forum with a small group of successful women in Saudi Arabia. At the event, the World Bank announced $100 million in funds committed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates toward its International Women’s Empowerment Fund. The event was attended by two female U.S. reporters, but neither were permitted to remain in the room after Ivanka Trump delivered her opening remarks and it is unclear whether she addressed broader issues of gender-based restrictions in Saudi society.
President Trump’s silence on human rights and democratic ideals stands in contrast to his two most recent predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who touted U.S. values as a component of their foreign policy strategies of combating radical and violent extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“It’s not about values in one category and interests in another,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in Obama’s first term. “In the case of the two previous administrations, one Republican and one Democrat, they both saw it as congruous with counterterrorism efforts. This administration is not even claiming to find a balance. They’re throwing it all out the window.”
Obama often met with civil society groups in repressive countries, including Russia and Vietnam, and he held town-hall-style meetings in China, South Africa, Peru and Malaysia, fielding questions from young people in a bid to demonstrate that the highest-level U.S. elected officials are accountable to the public.
Although U.S. human rights groups complained that Obama did not do enough, the public events irritated Obama’s foreign government hosts and prompted them to attempt to undermine him at times. On Obama’s 2016 visit to Hanoi, for example, three Vietnamese activists were reportedly prevented by the government from attending a roundtable with him.
U.S. presidents often travel to repressive nations and face the challenge of negotiating for concessions in the interest of human rights. But that challenge was made even more difficult because of Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia — one of the world’s most stringently controlled societies — as the first stop on his maiden foreign trip, according to P.J. Crowley, who was a State Department spokesman during the Obama administration.
“I’m not sure they were pushing for these things, but on a first trip I understand that they’re still in that adjustment period to understanding the prerogatives that go with being president and what you can and can’t do when you leave your own country,” Crowley said.
Wittes said that Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made a point on their foreign trips to speak directly to the public at large. She noted that Clinton, on her first trip to Saudi Arabia in 2010, conducted a town-hall-style event with students at a liberal arts college to emphasize women’s empowerment.
Trump’s chances to speak more directly to the public — in the Twitter forum and the women’s empowerment event — were “both shoved off on Ivanka,” Wittes said.
“That sends a very clear message to the people of the region that President Trump doesn’t want to talk to you or hear from you,” she added.