President Trump, mercifully, has not carried out most of his campaign promises. He isn’t declaring China a “currency manipulator” and he isn’t imposing massive tariffs, at least not yet. He hasn’t done any deals with Russia or stopped all Muslims from coming to the United States. He’s even taken back his criticism of NATO as “obsolete.”
But in one area Trump has been turning out to be exactly as expected — and that is in his disdain for human rights in foreign policy. To be sure, Trump is so erratic and inconsistent that even this statement needs to be caveated in light of his April 6 cruise-missile strike against Syria, which he ordered after being shocked by the gassing of “beautiful babies.” This is exactly the kind of humanitarian intervention he once campaigned against.
But Syria aside, with the honorable exception of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the president and most of his aides are displaying a marked indifference verging on contempt for what an earlier Republican president called the “freedom agenda.”
Previous secretaries of State typically appeared to personally release the State Department’s annual human rights report. Not Rex Tillerson. He skipped the event altogether. And on his recent trip to Russia, unlike past American envoys, he did not meet with opposition activists. The U.S. is also resuming F-16 deliveries to Bahrain in spite of the Sunni royal family’s oppression of the majority Shiites, including its decision last year to dissolve the major opposition party, Al-Wefaq.
As for Trump, he literally rolled out the red carpet earlier this month for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who seized power in a military coup and has since overseen a wave of repression. Human Rights Watch notes that under Sisi, “Egyptian police and National Security agents have routinely used torture and enforced disappearances against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents with near impunity.” There is no indication that Trump even raised such human-rights abuses with Sisi. Instead he showered the Egyptian strongman with fulsome praise, saying, “We agree on so many things…. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” Trump even shook Sisi’s hand in a photo op — something he would not do with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
You could make the case that Trump is simply making the best of a bad situation in Egypt, where Sisi has already consolidated power and there is no credible alternative on offer. At least, one can argue, he is against Islamic extremism. That’s a harder case to make in Turkey, however, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a secularist like Sisi. He is an Islamist and, although popularly elected, he is in the process of destroying the last remnants of Turkish democracy.
A major milestone in Erdogan’s consolidation of power occurred last weekend when he managed to eke out a narrow 51.4% to 48.6% victory in a referendum that will confer even more power on him. There are major questions, however, as to whether the vote was fair. European election observer Alev Korun suggested that up to 2.5 million votes might have been manipulated.
Even if there was no actual fraud on Election Day, it was hardly a fair contest. Since a failed military coup last year, Freedom House notes, the government has arrested nearly 40,000 civilians, imprisoned “dozens of journalists,” shuttered “hundreds of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations,” arrested hundreds of officials from a major opposition party, and fired “more than a hundred thousand civil servants.”
The State Department issued a statement which rightly expressed “concerns” that include “observed irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period, which took place under a state of emergency.” The European Commission called on Turkey to “launch transparent investigations into alleged irregularities.”
Yet Trump himself has not offered a word of censure. Instead, he called Erdogan and congratulated him on his big win. There was not a hint in the White House account of the phone call to suggest that Trump expressed any qualms about the manner in which Erdogan achieved his victory or what it likely portends for Turkey, which is more repression.
Granted, Turkey is a NATO ally that hosts a U.S. airbase, and the U.S. needs Turkey’s help to address problems such as the Syrian civil war. But it’s one thing to hold your nose and work with Erdogan despite his human-rights abuses. It’s another thing to actually praise him for destroying Turkish democracy.
While the U.S. has certainly backed its share of dictators over the years, it’s hard to think of any president other than Richard Nixon who showed such indifference to the moral dimension of foreign policy. Trump clearly looks upon human rights concerns as a distraction from his strategic goals. What he doesn’t understand is that the United States has been a “winner” in no small part because of our idealism, which has made America an attractive ally for freedom-seekers around the world. By jettisoning human rights promotion, Trump is sacrificing what has made America great.
Max Boot, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.