Originally published in Tom Dispatch.
Donald Trump has a plan to solve America’s drug crisis: kill the drug dealers.
“We have pushers and drugs dealers, they are killing hundreds and hundreds of people,” Trump said at a recent White House summit on opioid abuse. “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.”
Trump claims he got the idea for killing drug dealers from his pal, Chinese president for life, Xi Jinping. That’s a first: an American president openly borrowing a criminal justice program from an autocrat (and a Communist one, to boot). To be fair, Trump clearly also had in mind the experience of a democratic country. In the last two years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has encouraged a spree of extrajudicial police executions aimed at the drug trade that, according to Human Rights Watch, has left more than 12,000 Filipinos dead. Although the International Criminal Court has launched an inquiry into Duterte’s “crimes against humanity,” Trump has praised him for doing an “incredible job” with his anti-drug program.
The president’s embrace of the death penalty for drug dealers is but one example of his across-the-board scorn for human rights as he buddies up with the world’s most notorious autocrats and directs the Pentagon to ensure that ongoing human rights catastrophes around the world grow even worse. Meanwhile, he’s proposed slashing State Department programs promoting democracy and human rights, while trying to roll back movements for rights and freedoms in the United States.
Think of him as a driver who’s been licensed to operate the world’s largest vehicle despite his utter contempt for the rules of the road. Not surprisingly, the traffic forecast is bleak: with hardliner Mike Pompeo about to take over as secretary of state, his department will prove even less of a speed bump in the president’s dangerous game of chicken with the global community.
Two Cheers for Hypocrisy
U.S. foreign policy used to be reliably two-faced. Washington would regularly call out its adversaries on human rights abuses while largely ignoring the egregious violations of its closest friends. During the Cold War, for instance, the U.S. routinely lambasted the Soviet Union for its appalling record on human rights but handed out free passes to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, and others of their ilk.
Sure, the State Department has been issuing an exhaustive annual report on human rights violators that, for half a century, provided grim details on repressive governments like those of the Saudis and Egyptians. But that didn’t stop successive administrations from supplying those same autocracies with virtually all the weapons and military aid they claimed they needed, even as Washington maintained an arms embargo on China instituted after Beijing cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. And when the United States does lift such embargoes, as with Vietnam in 2016, it has everything to do with geopolitics (containing China) and nothing to do with human rights.
Now along comes Donald Trump, a thoroughgoing hypocrite on practically every subject — except human rights. There, he has extended the blind eye of American policy to just about everyone. With a few exceptions that prove the rule, he could care less about such abuses, even when they involve his own administration — including wife-beaters, Nazi sympathizers, and the incorrigibly corrupt, not to mention U.S. military personnel abroad (or ICE employees in this country).
Consider these telling changes in the Trumpian era. When the State Department released last year’s human rights report, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t even bother to hold the traditional press conference or present the findings himself, though he was in Washington at the time. This year’s report, unreleased and overdue, will reportedly give shorter shrift to women’s rights and discrimination of various kinds, prompting an outcry from more than 170 human-rights organizations. “This sends a clear signal that women’s reproductive rights are not a priority for this administration, and that it’s not even a rights violation we must or should report on,” an unnamed State Department official typically told Politico.
The writing has been on the wall in big block letters from the earliest moments of the Trump era. In May 2017, in his first town hall meeting with State Department staff, Tillerson warned that human rights should not become an obstacle in the U.S. pursuit of national interests, a shot across the department’s bow that contributed to a wave of subsequent resignations. Similarly, the administration’s first National Security Strategy barely mentioned human rights.
The diminished impact of the State Department reflects the diminished state of the department itself. Expect Pompeo to be even more aggressive than Tillerson at de-staffing it through unfilled ambassadorial positions (including South Korea and the European Union), the purging of staff for political reasons, cash buyouts for early retirements, and major reductions at embassies like the new one in Cuba. Among the many top positions that remain unfilled, there aren’t even nominees for undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights or assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor (or, for that matter, special envoy on North Korean human rights). The Trump team proposed slashing the State Department budget by 25% from $53 billion to $39 billion. Congress, however, rebelled and reduced the shrinkage to just 6% in the final budget bill signed by the president last week. As part of these ostensible austerity measures, Trump wanted to effectively eliminate the bulk of “democracy promotion” by gutting the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its associated institutions.
Critics of the NED — and there are many of them with telling points to make — will rejoice. But let’s not kid ourselves: the alternative world Trump is creating will be even grimmer.
Bullets, Not Ballots
Trump’s assault on diplomacy does not represent any across-the-board reduction in America’s engagement with the world. After all, Pentagon spending is slated to rise by $80 billion a year or nearly twice the (reduced) budget of the shrunken State Department. And keep in mind that the Pentagon is actively involved in human rights abuses globally.
It is, for instance, giving Saudi Arabia billions of dollars in weapons (including cluster bombs) to bomb Yemen back to the Stone Age, while air-refueling American-produced F-16s that the Saudis are deploying and providing further logistical support for this devastating air war. The result has been a catastrophe, including more than 5,000 dead civilians, a devastating famine, and a health crisis that, in 2017, already led to more than 2,000 casualties from a cholera epidemic and 50,000 children dead from malnutrition and other diseases.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State and he’s been as good as his word. The Trump administration upped the number of aerial attacks against that group without regard for civilian casualties in 2017. Up to 20,000 bombs were, for instance, dropped on ISIS’s “capital,” the Syrian city of Raqqa. In one particularly gruesome case, the U.N. has accused the U.S.-led coalition of violating international law by bombing a school building near that city in March 2017, killing 150 people among the displaced families sheltered there. Such acts have only been compounded by the Trump administration’s indifference to war crimes committed by the Syrian government and its Russian ally.
In Afghanistan, Trump has similarly given the U.S. military free rein to attack the Taliban. From August to the end of last year, Washington conducted almost as many air strikes there as it had in 2015 and 2016 combined. Who then could be surprised that Afghanistan experienced more civilian deaths in 2017 than during any other comparable period in the 16-year war?
Occasionally, the White House still talks about defending human rights, as in an executive order issued as 2017 ended that targeted “serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.” That order, however, focused on only 13 individuals, including the former president of Gambia, an arms dealer in the Balkans, a Guatemalan politician, and the son of Russia’s prosecutor general.
In Trump’s universe, in other words, human rights abuses are committed only by a handful of “bad hombres.” The world’s greatest human rights abusers aren’t on that list — because many of them are among the president’s BFFs.
President Trump has made a point of establishing close working relationships with some of the worst autocrats on the planet. His first official trip overseas in May 2017 was typical. It wasn’t the usual inaugural jaunt to Canada, Mexico, or Europe. Instead, he made a beeline for Saudi Arabia, a country that lacks democracy, subordinates women, has never allowed freedom of speech or assembly, and imposes severe restrictions on its Shiite minority. Just Trump’s kind of place! He gave a speech in Riyadh condemning terrorism without once mentioning Saudi contributions to Sunni extremism around the world and capped things off by promising $110 billion in weaponry for the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has been a friend of the United States since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Trump, however, wants to bind Washington and Riyadh even more closely in an anti-Iranian front (an impulse the appointment of Mike Pompeo, a well-known Iranophobe, can only strengthen). And the Saudi royals were just one entry on a crowded Trumpian list of despots that includes Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (“I’ve always had a good instinct about Putin.”) Also on the list is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Trump praised (“We have a great friendship”) even as the Turkish leader was throwing journalists in prison and conducting a military campaign against the country’s Kurdish minority. As for his chum Xi, Trump recently eulogizedthe Chinese president for making himself ruler for life, wistfully regretting that an unnamed American president couldn’t do the same.
Then there’s Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a violent coup in 2013, killing hundreds, jailing tens of thousands, and torturing his opponents. For Trump, these were merely signs of a stiff spine. “I just want to let everybody know that we are very much behind President Sisi; he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” he said on welcoming the Egyptian leader to the White House in April 2017.
Such “friendships” are actually green lights for bad behavior. Soon after Trump shook the hands of the leaders of various Arab states in Saudi Arabia in May 2017, for instance, Bahrain cracked down on its free press and extrajudicial killings rose dramatically in Egypt. Saudi Arabia launched a blockade against Qatar, in part because of its support for democracy movements during the Arab Spring and the relative freedom of its state-supported media outlet Al-Jazeera. Although Qatar has been a close military ally of Washington — the largest American military base in the region is located there — Trump immediately tweeted his support for the blockade.
Perhaps his closest overseas soul mate, however, has been Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister has taken full advantage of that relationship to ratchet up pressure on the Palestinian community through extrajudicial executions, expanded settlements, police crackdowns, and the ever-punishing blockade of Gaza. In return, Trump has given Netanyahu whatever he wants, including an American embassy in Jerusalem and recognition of that city as Israel’s capital.
Trump has raised the issue of human rights abuses only in the case of four countries: Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. And after spending his first year in office trading insults with Kim Jong-un, he’s recently made a dramatic pivot, offering to sit down and negotiate with the North Korean leader, reducing his “axis of evil” to three.
Except for those outliers, his position has been that sovereign states should be allowed to do whatever they like within their own borders, as he himself moved with visible enthusiasm to suppress human rights at home. Like his friend Viktor Orban in Hungary, Trump took aim at immigrants; like Putin in Russia, he targeted LGBT advances; like Erdogan in Turkey, he accused the mainstream press of being the enemy; and like his alt-right buddies in Europe, he navigated close to neo-Nazis. No wonder Amnesty International has labeled Trump a “threat” to human rights.
Smashing the International Community
The Trump administration has continued to wage America’s ongoing wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. At various moments, the president himself has also threatened to attack both North Korea and Venezuela. And with Pompeo heading for the State Department and the even more Iranophobic and bloodthirsty John Bolton becoming national security advisor, a military conflict with Iran may well be in the offing.
So far, however, the only new “war” President Trump has launched is a metaphoric one against the international community — with all-too-real consequences.
He promptly withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and then the Paris climate accord, while regularly threatening to deep-six a multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran signed by the Obama administration — all acts reflecting his disgust for anything that smacks of internationalism (or Obama himself).
His assault on the global human rights order has been even more dramatic. One of his first gestures was to re-impose a “global gag rule” restricting U.S. funding for organizations worldwide that provide family-planning assistance. Over the summer, his administration quietly prepared to close the State Department office that investigates genocide and war crimes. In October, it announced its future withdrawal from the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO (because of alleged anti-Israel bias).
Soon after, the administration pulled out of a global migration pact that Obama had enthusiastically endorsed the year before. A month later, it cut funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees, and is now preparing to reduce cooperation with the International Criminal Court. Its biggest target so far, however, has been the U.N. Human Rights Council. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley presented that council with an ultimatum: “If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the council.” Although the Council has yet to bend to U.S. demands, Trump and company are undoubtedly uninterested in its “reform.” (Washington hasn’t even bothered to replace its special representative on the Council.)
No international initiative has proven too small for his administration to target, even the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global standard implemented by 52 countries whose task is to reduce corruption in the energy and mining sector. As Adam Davidson commented in the New Yorker, “[T]he Trump Administration is actively implementing, in real policy, its avowed distrust — even contempt —for international compacts designed to improve the lives of people around the world. Abandoning EITI is not for show; it is a move toward dismantling the architecture of global governance.”
At a gut level, Donald Trump just hates “globalism,” which represents the antithesis of his America First doctrine. If he gets his way, the United States will not simply withhold its support for global initiatives, it will undermine any kind of global planning or cooperation that has a peaceable bent to it. Just as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher believed only in individuals, not “society,” Trump dismisses the U.N. and believes only in powerful actors. As his then-loyal adjutants, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and former chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in May 2017, “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Thanks to the Trump team, the international community is quickly devolving into World Wrestling Entertainment.
At first, the new president’s global belligerence had a certain unifying effect. Even as the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord, for instance, the last two holdouts (Syria and Nicaragua) signed on and the rest of the world’s nations recommitted themselves to achieving the agreement’s goals without U.S. participation. In the face of a possible U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the other signatories (Europe, Russia, China, and Iran) redoubled their efforts to preserve it.
But bullies have a pernicious influence on social norms, which means that a single powerful rule-breaker can do much to undermine global institutions. As such, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the climate deal has largely deflated that global effort. The Europeans have reluctantly agreed to form a working group with the U.S. on altering the Iran nuclear deal, while the Iranians recently indicated that they might withdraw from it if the Europeans can’t keep Washington on board. Having broken the international rules of the road, Trump is now rewriting them to reflect his extreme version of American exceptionalism.
After the genocidal bloodletting of World War II, the U.N. and its foundational documents on human rights represented a different, more humane trajectory for the world. Donald Trump is attempting to rewind world history to an earlier era of blood and soil, of a nationalism red in tooth and claw, and of unfettered capitalism. He has brokered an informal alliance of autocrats and financiers worldwide against the U.N. and human rights more generally.
In this reincarnated version of an older order, the rich and the strong will prosper — at least for a while. Trump and friends will make out like bandits — at least for a while. And until citizens unite across borders to rescue the human rights order from this onslaught, the weak and the outnumbered will have ever fewer places to turn on an increasingly heartless planet.