The escalating US crackdown on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua is a fresh example of the selective morality and strategic expediency shaping President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
Washington is cloaking its policies in its own geopolitical backyard in the language of human rights, democracy and freedom.
Yet Trump’s transparent admiration for some of the world’s most ruthless leaders elsewhere leaves him facing charges of hypocrisy, inconsistency and of severing core US foreign policy principles.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Wednesday that “dictators perceive appeasement as weakness, not strength,” as he announced measures meant to hammer Cuba’s weak economy.
“Detente with the regime has failed. Cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights,” Pompeo said.
In Florida, National Security Advisor John Bolton struck a similarly Reaganesque note by predicting the “troika of tyranny” in Havana, Caracas and Managua led by “three stooges of socialism” is about to fall.
There’s a strong argument that the United States — and the people of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – would be far better off with democratic representation and good governance and that it is sound US policy to promote such change.
But there also appear to be less lofty motivations for the Trump administration’s approach, given the large number of exiles from the three nations in Florida, a crucial swing state, and the political synergy offered by the chance to lambast Democrats as the kin of regional left wing strongmen presiding over anemic economies.
And Wednesday’s action capping the amount of money families in the US can send to relatives in Cuba rolled back an Obama administration initiative. Eradicating the previous President from the history books often appears to be an almost obsessive goal for the current White House.
Yet the administration’s justification for its policies might be more credible – and less politically transparent – if the standard was applied in areas of the globe where the administration seems to care little for human rights, freedom and pluralism.
Trump’s embrace of strongmen
One of the most striking aspects of Trump’s presidency has been his deference to foreign strongmen, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump repeatedly praised Putin’s strength during his 2016 campaign and, despite the cloud of Russian election meddling, he has tried to forge a strong personal bond with the former KGB lieutenant colonel as president.
Trump’s own State Department accuses North Korea of “egregious human rights violations” including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, forced labor and of maintaining prison and forced labor camps.
But Trump has described how he and Kim “fell in love.” Trump’s two summits with the North Korean leader gave Kim the legitimacy his dynasty of tyrants dreamed about for decades.
In 1990, Trump praised China’s communist rulers for a show of strength with the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, though later insisted in a CNN debate he was not endorsing what he called “horrible” action.
The idea that Trump is acting on humanitarian motives close to home is undermined by his administration’s embrace of regimes that use repression against their people further afield.
The administration has for instance battled attempts by Congress to downgrade US ties with Saudi Arabia and its strongman Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman following the murder and dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.
Pompeo, who insists the US cannot be sure that the murder was ordered by MBS, was pictured smiling alongside the Crown Prince on a visit to the kingdom shortly after the murder.
The sense that the transgressions of the Trump administration’s friends are being overlooked was bolstered when Trump cast just the second veto of his presidency Tuesday against a landmark congressional war powers resolution designed to end US involvement in the war in Yemen.
Saudi air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels have killed thousands of civilians. Many more people are believed to have starved to death or died in a public health crisis brought on by the conflict. CNN reported last year that US-made weapons were found at the scene of an air strike in which dozens of school boys were killed.
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna told CNN Wednesday that “almost 14 million US lives in Yemen” were at risk from the Saudi blockade and said Republican support was growing in Congress to reexamine the US relationship with the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia has also conducted roundups of regime opponents, is currently detaining several US citizens and has historically been criticized by Washington for human rights abuses.
But the administration argues that Saudi Arabia is such a fulcrum of US foreign policy in the Middle East that Washington cannot afford to isolate its leaders.
Riyadh is crucial to the Trump administration’s relentless pressure on Iran — another foreign policy problem where the White House displays its pick and choose approach to human rights.
Trump offered a frank and unapologetic explanation for his support for Saudi Arabia in a remarkable statement last year, declaring that the world was a very dangerous place but that he was always guided by the principle “America First!”
He also told reporters that there was a financial rationale for his determination to preserve ties and US arms contracts with Riyadh.
“We’re not going to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in orders and let Russia and China have them … it’s a very simple equation for me,” Trump said.
Trump’s opponents have also questioned whether he has personal business entanglements with the Saudis that are shaping his policy approach.
America’s consistent conundrum over human rights
Trump is far from the first President to face accusations of hypocrisy in the US application of human rights principles.
In recent decades, America’s critics have accused it of failing to live up to the values it requires in others, for instance over war on terror interrogation practices. The idea of the US as a paragon was hardly compatible with policies like the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. And President Barack Obama’s use of drone strikes was seen by some critics as inconsistent with the standards expected of a Nobel peace laureate.
But the contradictions in US policy have rarely been so sharp and unrepentant.
Many former US officials worry that the current decoupling of US policy from universal values, or a cynically selective application of them, does far more damage than subjecting Washington to charges of hypocrisy.
The fear is that such conduct could erode US soft power, not just now but for subsequent administrations and undermine the democratic, Western systems and institutions that have helped make the US the world’s most powerful nation for the last 70 years. Such an approach could also benefit nations like China that are offering an alternative and non-democratic form of capitalism as a template for developing states across the globe.