There are many ways to judge a nation’s standing and influence abroad. One of the most telling is to judge how other nations treat one’s citizens. By that standard, it should surprise no one to learn, America’s standing is perilously low from one end of the Middle East to the other.
The Egyptian government, which has just been favored with a decision by the Obama administration to continue $1.3 billion a year in military aid, has responded by sentencing an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, to life in prison on trumped-up charges of subversion. Soltan’s real crime was criticizing the military coup which ousted Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government. Even though Soltan was not a Brotherhood member himself, or even a sympathizer, he was rounded up in the same dragnet which has caught up many of the Brothers while working as a volunteer translator for foreign reporters. He has been on a hunger strike for the past year to protest his unlawful detention. It is a sign of America’s impotence that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi felt free to ignore President Obama’s pleas to release Soltan (whose father was sentenced to death in the same case) even while Obama was considering whether or not to resume military aid.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Middle East, Iran is proceeding with a trial on trumped-up espionage charges against Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran. He was arrested last summer and imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison where political detainees are held. Only now has he been allowed to consult with a lawyer. Now he is being charged with such offenses as “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment.”
Naturally the mullahs have ignored Secretary of State Kerry’s pleas to release Rezaian along with two other U.S. citizens currently held in Iranian prisons. Yup, this is the same Iranian government that is being wooed with offers of $50 billion in released funds as soon as it agrees to a sign a deal with the U.S. that would allow it to become a nuclear power in waiting. So little leverage does the U.S. have with Tehran—and so little respect does Tehran have for American demands—that it feels free to proceed with the persecution of Jason Rezaian even as it negotiates with the U.S. in the hopes of getting sanctions lifted.
President Obama might want to read up on the Don Pacifico Affair, the famous case in 1850 when Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, sent the Royal Navy to Athens to make sure that Greece fully paid claims owed to David Pacifico, a Jewish merchant whose house had been ransacked by an anti-Semitic mob. Pacifico, you see, had been born in Gibraltar and was therefore a British subject. When Palmerston’s actions were attacked in the House of Commons, he replied with a famous five-hour oration concluding, “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”
The United States is a lot more powerful, in both absolute and relative terms, than the British Empire was in its heyday—but not powerful enough, it seems, to protect our citizens from “injustice and wrong” at the hands of our allies and negotiating partners. “I am an American citizen” is, today, too often an invitation to abuse—not a protection against abuse.