President Donald Trump has finally called out Saudi Arabia for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist living in exile, was gruesomely murdered while visiting the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. The sloppy hit, almost assuredly ordered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, elicited sharp international condemnation. In the weeks since, Saudi Arabia has awkwardly tried to dodge accountability for the operation, first denying that Khashoggi died inside the consulate, then claiming his death occurred accidentally during a fight and now blaming his death on rogue actors within the state’s security apparatus.
For American observers, outrage at the assassination and shoddy cover-up was coupled by disbelief as Trump for weeks refused to acknowledge, much less condemn, Saudi Arabia’s brazen and appalling abuse of power. Trump originally criticized other countries’ and corporations’ swift criticism of Saudi Arabia and floated the “rogue killers” theory that Saudi Arabia later came to adopt. As corporate and political leaders around the world withdrew en masse from a planned Saudi investment conference, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reaffirmed his plans to attend. It took another week of feet-dragging, during which Trump dispatched multiple officials to meet with Saudi and Turkish officials, before Trump finally cancelled Mnuchin’s trip and issued a clear denunciation of the killing.
To be fair, the president’s eventual condemnation of the assassination is a welcome reversal, but his delay in doing so reinforces his administration’s troubling reluctance to call out the autocratic nations. If not checked, Trump’s continued public admiration for some of the world’s most ruthless dictators threatens to degrade the United States’ status as preeminent leader of the free world and dilute American support for democracy and human rights abroad.
Trump has consistently praised dictators and expressed respect for their style of rule both during his campaign and after taking office. Alarmingly, Trump doesn’t just flatter America’s autocratic allies — some of his most effusive praises are reserved for hostile adversaries. In 2017, Trump invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to the White House and characterized his crackdown on drugs, which has consisted of the extrajudicial killings of thousands, as a “great job.” In a June 2018 interview, Trump downplayed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s brutal repression of his people, instead referring to him as a “tough” and “very smart” leader. And of course there is Trump’s frequent praising of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has called “far more” of a leader than former President Barack Obama.
Contrast those statements with the criticism and vitriol, often trade-related, that Trump has tossed at democratic allies. He’s called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak,” and critiqued German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, which have little to no effect on the United States, as “insane.”
However, it is unrealistic to perpetually criticize or disassociate with every state that restricts political freedoms or violates human rights, especially in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner and collaboration with the Saudi government is crucial to pursuing our interests in the region, namely suppressing terrorism and countering the influence of hostile states such as Iran. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, which certainly contributed to the U.S.’s silence when the autocratic kingdom ruthlessly crushed a popular uprising in 2011.
The bottom line is that being one of the world’s largest superpowers necessitates cooperation with unscrupulous states who don’t share our values. But this doesn’t require us to ignore the most egregious violations, such as the Khashoggi killing, nor does it require America to abandon its commitment to promoting democracy around the world.
This commitment isn’t just implied — the State Department’s own mission statement is to “Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.” America’s record of supporting democracy worldwide is far from sterling, especially during the Cold War era, when the U.S. routinely supported authoritarian states in order to counter the influence of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the goal of democratizing the world and protecting human rights is still a worthy one that should be pursued when at all possible, which is why Trump’s repeated praise of dictators is so alarming. The U.S. prides itself on being the leader of the free world, and even though many on the left believe that mantle has been passed to Merkel, they still hope to reclaim it following Trump’s presidency. Trump, and his successors, would be wise to realize that it is hard to be the leader of the free world if you do not show any interest in promoting a free world.
Noah Harrison can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.