If you’re a murderous dictator, this is a joyous time to be alive.
No one will make much of a fuss if your opposition leader is jailed, if an annoying journalist goes missing or if, as happened in Congo, a judge who displeases the dictatorial president suffers a home invasion in which goons rape his wife and daughter.
As President Donald Trump replaces Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the more hawkish Mike Pompeo, let’s note something that goes far beyond personnel to the heart of the American role in the world: The U.S. has abandoned a bipartisan consensus on human rights that goes back decades.
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I’m back from Myanmar, where leaders are finding that this is also the optimal time to commit genocide. The army conducted a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, with soldiers throwing babies onto bonfires as they raped the mothers.
What has Trump said to condemn Myanmar for these atrocities?
In the past, human rights was at least one thread of our foreign policy. This was pursued inconsistently, grudgingly or hypocritically, and it jostled constantly with realpolitik considerations, but in the past it was one of the factors in play.
I periodically assailed Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush for not doing more after atrocities in Syria, Darfur or South Sudan, but both Obama and Bush were clearly anguished and frustrated that they didn’t have better tools to stop the slaughter.
In contrast, Trump seems simply indifferent.
Trump defended Vladimir Putin for killing critics (“What? You think our country’s so innocent?”), and praised Egypt’s brutal president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for “a fantastic job.” Trump hailed the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch notes in Foreign Affairs that when Trump visited Manila, he laughed as Duterte called reporters “spies” – in a country where aggressive journalism has landed people in the morgue.
“In country after country, the Trump administration is gutting U.S. support for human rights,” Margon writes.
So dictators see a clear field: A record number of journalists are in prison worldwide, by the count of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Joel Simon, the organization’s executive director, says Trump has met with the leaders of each of the three top jailers of journalists – China, Russia and Turkey – and as far as we know, has never raised the issue of press freedom with them.
“What’s completely gone is the bipartisan consensus that was a cornerstone of our foreign policy, that if you imprison journalists and restrict the media, there will be consequences,” Simon said.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen approvingly cited Trump’s attacks on fake news as a precedent for closing down radio stations and the much admired newspaper Cambodia Daily. After the crackdown, in November, Trump posed for a photograph with Hun Sen, flashing a thumbs-up – and Hun Sen praised the American president for his lack of interest in human rights.
“Your policy is being changed,” Hun Sen declared gratefully, and he lauded Trump for being “most respectful.”
Trump told the king of repressive Bahrain, “there won’t be strain with this administration.” Nabeel Rajab, a heroic Bahraini who is one of the Arab world’s leading human rights campaigners, says the government responded a few days later by killing five protesters – and, just last month, the government followed up again by sentencing Rajab himself to five years in prison for his tweets.
Trump’s soft spot for authoritarianism goes way back. He has spoken sympathetically of the Chinese government’s massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, and of Saddam Hussein’s approach to counterterrorism.
Important human rights jobs in the administration aren’t even filled, although some conservatives are rallying support for the appointment of Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, which would be a good first step.
Periodically, Trump does raise human rights issues, but only to bludgeon enemies like North Korea or Venezuela. This is so ham-handed and hypocritical that it simply diminishes American standing further.
In some respects, Trump has united the world. Against us.
A recent Gallup poll shows that across 134 countries, approval of the United States has collapsed to a record low of 30 percent. Indeed, more people now approve of China than of the United States. Russia is just behind us.
“Trump has been a disaster for U.S. soft power,” says Gary Bass of Princeton University. “He’s so hated around the world that he’s radioactive. So on those rare occasions when he does something about human rights, it only tarnishes the cause.”
This is a tragedy for the United States. But the greatest loss is felt by people who are helpless as loved ones are raped, tortured or murdered. In Myanmar, a young Rohingya man pleaded with me: “Please don’t let us be treated as animals. Please. Please. Don’t break our trust.”
What do we tell him?
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.