By David K. Shipler
Hypocrisy is a cardinal feature of foreign policy, and it wasn’t invented by Donald Trump. Saying one thing and doing another, or doing different things simultaneously, or saying contradictory things about the same situation are venerable traditions in diplomacy, and no more dramatically than in the area of human rights.
Most countries skate along easily in this slippery practice, but the United States sometimes bumps up against its inconvenient national myth: that America is the beacon of democracy, the shining city on a hill, the bastion of freedom, the model of liberty—and promotes the same the world around. When the collision between idealism and realism occurs, American policy toward whatever country is committing egregious violations either hits a wall and retreats, or it finds a pragmatic detour around the obstacle to continue on its way, rationalized by national security and commercial interests.
The second route, returning soon to business as usual, seems likely to be taken by Washington in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post who had exiled himself in the US to write critically of Saudi Arabia’s anti-democracy. As Trump has pointed out in various contorted statements, the US has a strong stake in close relations with the kingdom. He appears willing to stand up against the clamor of bipartisan outrage over the gruesome spectacle, as portrayed by Turkish authorities, of Khashoggi’s torture and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and the widespread skepticism about the official Saudi claim that he was killed during a fistfight.
Perhaps if the Saudis had used Israel’s technique against terrorists—a precisely placed bomb or a drive-by shooting—the reaction would have been muted. It has certainly been muted over broader transgressions by Saudi Arabia, such as its lack of a free press, its intolerance of dissenting political speech, and its ongoing carnage of civilians during the war in Yemen. No administration, whether Democratic or Republican, has seen fit to sever the ties of accommodation. America’s supposed passion for human rights has been overcome by several considerations.
One, Saudi Arabia has plenty of oil, able to drive global prices up or down with the turn of a spigot, and only recently has the US, with shale production, grown to depend much less on imported petroleum. Two, Saudi Arabia has plenty of money, which it likes to spend partly on shoring up the American defense industry by purchasing weapons systems. Trump, being mostly a money-man, has cited this as a main argument for maintaining close relations.
Third, Saudi Arabia has allied itself with the US to counter Iran, which was strengthened by the last Republican president’s strategically canny decision to eliminate the main counterweight to Iran-- Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Fourth, and most interesting, the Saudis provide intelligence and cooperation on counter-terrorism. They do this even while funding Salafi Sunni mosques and madrasas abroad that promote an extreme variant of Islam, which nourished the rise of al-Qaeda. But here is a point of complication, for as Tom Friedman writes, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has shown signs that he might be a force toward a tolerant Islam. If some Islamic reformation occurred, it would outdo all the other benefits that the US derives from its Saudi connection.
Avoiding cutoffs and sanctions over rights violations can be a worthy strategy to promote internal liberalization. But that requires sophisticated policy management, which is beyond the Trump administration’s capability. Clearly, Trump cares nothing about human rights, and he’s transparent about it by openly admiring such authoritarian strongmen as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Rodrigo Duarte of the Philippines.
That makes him less hypocritical on this point than most of his predecessors, for overlooking human rights violations has been integral to American policy toward many other countries for decades.
Especially during the Cold War, anti-communist credentials were usually enough in a ruthless dictator to win American support: The Shah of Iran, for example, overthrown by the Islamic revolution; Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, whose abuses led to the revolution by Fidel Castro; Muhammad Suharto of Indonesia, whose mass murder of purported communists in 1965 was supported with strategic help and encouragement by the US.
American subversion of democracy was rampant in the Western Hemisphere. In 1954, the CIA toppled Guatemala’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, and installed a military dictatorship mostly to benefit the banana business of the United Fruit Company, which had, under the previous government, enjoyed tax exemption on huge tracts of company land, amounting to about 40 percent of the country’s territory. When Arbenz initiated land reform to distribute undeveloped acreage to the poor, United Fruit claimed inadequate compensation and mobilized friends in high places, including CIA director Allen Dulles, who had served on the company’s board of directors.
In 1973, Chile’s embryonic democracy was killed by the CIA, which helped engineer a military coup against the elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. He had many opponents in the Chilean middle class, but the American involvement was encouraged by a media tycoon, Agustin Edwards, heir to an old and powerful family, whose long friendship with the Rockefellers opened doors in Washington.
According to declassified US documents, Edwards met with Richard Helms, head of the CIA, which had secretly funded Edwards’s newspaper, El Mercurio, to provide Helms with information on military officers likely to participate in a coup. The result was 17 years of a brutal military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
(An intriguing footnote: Years later, David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan Bank, transferred to Edwards an entrancing, uninhabited Maine island, which I am seeing from my window as I write. Edwards, who died last year, was said to have loved landscape architecture, and he hired a caretaker to clean up downed trees and brush, cut tasteful paths, and groom the island for hiking and picnicking.)
Another friend of Edwards was Donald Kendall, CEO of PepsiCo, who displayed his own taste for business over human rights on at least one occasion that I witnessed. In the late 1970s, Kendall visited the Soviet Union and spoke to an annual conference of the Soviet-American Trade Council, of which he was co-chairman. Its members, Soviet officials and American executives, were keen on promoting trade between the two countries.
At the time, Soviet restrictions on the emigration of Jews was an obstacle to improved relations. American diplomats invariably raised the matter with their Soviet counterparts, all the way up to the Secretary of State and the Soviet Foreign Minister. Trade was linked to this issue under the Jackson-Vanick Amendment, which prohibited granting the Soviet Union most-favored nation status to reduce tariffs, unless the Russians freed up emigration.
At the conference, Kendall denounced the law, predicted that the trade-emigration link would eventually be repealed, and praised his Soviet hosts for their patience in trying to improve commerce. It was an astonishing thing to say to that audience at that time. I came away thinking that Soviet officials, schooled in the view that capitalists ruled the US, had just been encouraged to believe that they wouldn’t have to liberalize. All they’d have to was wait until the capitalists had their way.
You can’t blame Kendall for the Soviet oppression of Jews who wished to leave the country. There were many calculations that went into the policy, particularly an anxiety about permitting citizens to vote with their feet to leave a closed society. But Kendall certainly misled Soviet officials, and his priorities live on, long after his retirement. While scores of companies have pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s trade conference next week over the Khashoggi murder, Pepsi has said that it will attend.
In American foreign policy, human rights are often for sale.