In a New York Times op-ed, Princeton University Professor Gary Bass recently contended that Donald Trump’s record on human rights is a disaster. In the effort to craft a comprehensive denunciation, Bass claimed that Trump is a menace not only when he “ignores” the issue of human rights but also “when he speaks up” about it. That surely covers all the bases.
Bass noted, with ample supporting evidence, that Donald Trump has a history of heaping ill-advised praise on foreign despots, both as president and before his time in the White House. Trump does seem enamored with the trappings of autocratic power, which is an unattractive trait in the chief executive of a republic. Bass flirts with superfluity, however, when he insisted that the president invokes human-rights concerns only “strategically” to serve as a “geopolitical cudgel.”
Bass claimed that Trump “rarely” condemn human-rights abuses against Muslims, but enthusiastically denounces violence against minority Christian populations. This is simply false. In November, the United States declared the violence being directed against Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority “ethnic cleansing” and condemned the “horrendous atrocities” being executed both by the state’s security apparatus and vigilantes in the strongest of terms. Trump and his administration have also condemned terror attacks targeting Muslims in places like Egypt and Iran.
Bass conjectured that Trump sees human rights as a mere tool of statecraft, which he implies is a callous view. But if that is the case, he has a jaundiced view of America’s geopolitical interests and objectives. Bass claims that Trump’s condemnation of state-led oppression in places like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela is cheap—a desire only to address America’s parochial concerns and not the interests of humanity. But America’s national interest is to see these governments liberalize (or dissolve entirely), which would have the happy byproduct of increasing these states’ responsiveness to the welfare of their citizens.
Bass failed to appreciate the fact that no presidency has approached the issue of human-rights promotion as an entirely altruistic enterprise. Carter administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recalled later in life that the pursuit of human-rights considerations was of “instrumental utility,” particularly with regard to the administration’s desire to isolate the Soviet Union. “Raising the issue of human rights pointed to one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system,” he asserted, “namely, that it was a system based on oppression.” Both the Republican and Democratic administrations that succeeded Carter’s adopted human-rights promotion as a pillar of America’s foreign policy doctrine. If anyone broke with this tradition, it was not Trump but Barack Obama.
The Obama administration opened a dialogue with the regime in Iran even as protesters were being whipped with chains by motorcycle gangs on the streets of Tehran in 2009. They pursued a thaw in relations with Russia just months after Moscow invaded and carved up neighboring Georgia—a diplomatic offensive that was not cut off even after Russia cracked down on LGBT citizens and was determined to be culpable for the suspicious death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. It was Obama who looked the other way amid the near-genocide of Syrians and who declined to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. It was Obama who pursued no reciprocal commitments from the Communist regime in Havana in exchange for the unilateral normalization of relations with the United States; indeed, the arrest of dissidents increased ahead of Obama’s historic visit to the island nation. It was Obama who declined to speak out against the Venezuelan regime as it was executing civilians amid a wave of unrest in 2014, only belatedly sanctioning officials once the uprising had been quelled.
Obama’s defenders might call these observations “whataboutism,” but ignoring inconsistencies like these detracts from arguments like those in Bass’s op-ed. Surely, Obama saw utility in pursuing a cold-eyed foreign policy that failed to emphasize human rights; his desire was to secure more favorable relations with these abusive governments. But those like Bass who argue that the Trump administration has abdicated America’s responsibility to champion human rights cannot credibly argue that Obama did not do the same and with markedly more gusto than we’ve seen from this presidency.
Bass lands a variety of valid criticisms in his op-ed. He noted that the Trump administration has been tight-lipped when it comes to the abuses of America’s supposed strategic partners—the Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and so on. He correctly observed that Trump’s indelicate comments about his detractors are reminiscent of the despotic regimes America traditionally opposes. Finally, as Bass noted, the attacks on “fake news” by Cambodia’s tyrant prime minister Hun Sen suggests that bad actors around the world see Trump’s example as one to emulate—a deeply disturbing prospect.
And yet, the idea that Trump “can’t credibly encourage demonstrations in Iran while berating protesters at home,” for example, is abject nonsense. The president is not merely one man but the foremost representative of the government of the United States on the world stage. Trump derives his authority from the Constitution and the legitimacy of the representative government to which he was elected. Bass claims that Trump is a hypocrite for highlighting the life-affirming stories of North Koreans who escaped tyranny to live free in America while simultaneously seeking dramatic decreases in the number of refugees the U.S. resettles domestically. Surely Bass would prefer that Trump abandon his refugee policy, but would he also have Trump remain mum on the crimes committed by North Korea only to avoid the subjective appearance of hypocrisy? That’s not a human-rights policy at all. It’s not statecraft of any sort, in fact. It’s pique.
This presidency would be immeasurably easier to defend if the president were not a part of it. But critics of Trump who literally claim that he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t are not convincing anyone of their sincerity.