President Trump’s statement on US-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a perversely refreshing breath of fresh air. That sounds kind of like praise, but it really isn’t.
No, what Trump has done, in his typical barely-literate way, is to brutally expose the hypocrisy that has long marked the United States’ approach to human rights. In this, his statement represents a real service.
Other American presidents have long claimed to stand for human rights, but as human rights scholar Julie Mertus writes in her award-winning book Bait and Switch:
The United States still pretends to support universal human rights when it actually recognizes different standards for itself and its friends than those it applies to its enemies.
For the White House … human rights talk is not supported by consistent human rights behavior. On the contrary, the United States applies a double standard for human rights norms: one that applies to the United States and one that applies to the rest of the world.
This makes Trump’s honesty that much more surprising, given his serial dishonesty. He doesn’t even bother with the human rights talk. Trump truly does not care if human rights are violated if there’s something in it for us. Like arms sales, or cooperation against our enemies, or a regional alliance, or low oil prices:
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!
Journalist Graeme Wood sums it up like this: “In other words: our friendship is too sweet to spit out, no matter how poisonous it may be.”
By reaffirming our alliance with Saudi Arabia and standing by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whom the CIA has determined ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, Trump shines a bright spotlight on the very hypocrisies other presidents have hidden behind high-minded human rights rhetoric. Like this from Ronald Reagan:
The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores.
And now consider the reality of Reagan’s record on human rights: condemnation for abuses in the Soviet bloc while turning a blind eye to the brutality of the Haitian government, the murder of civilians by the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, government-backed death squads in El Salvador, and pro-US contra rebels in Nicaragua, atrocities committed by pro-American rebels in Angola, selling arms to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia …
So maybe we should thank Trump for his honesty by saying out loud what foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau long advocated:
The principle of defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests more important than the defense of human rights.
Or, as Trump says, America First!