Is Trump the End of Moral U.S. Foreign Policy? Not Quite.
In the aftermath of the murder of prominent Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents, condemnation of Saudi Arabia has been widespread in the West. That is with the exception of the Trump administration. Despite the recent announcement from the CIA concluding that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), had ordered the killing, the Trump administration has chosen not to condemn Saudi Arabia, but rather reaffirm its support for the kingdom. And this is by no means an exception in Trump’s foreign policy. Throughout his presidency his actions and words have been described as “un-American” and this reaffirmation of support for the Saudi Arabian government has been met with vitriol from both sides of the aisle. Yet, Trump’s actions are very much in line with previous administrations’ policies towards human rights violations by strategic partners, which beg a closer look to understand the historical precedent of this administration’s actions.
Arguably since the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has made supporting ruthless authoritarian dictators, first in Latin America then the rest of the world, a central pillar of its foreign policy. Using communism as a pretext for intervention, the U.S. undermined democracy in a plurality of places ranging from Chile and Honduras to Iran and Vietnam. This was done through American support for violent coups and through the establishment of brutal military dictatorships. For instance in Chile, the United States supported a plot to stop the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende from even taking office. The plot failed, but the commander in chief of the army, Gen. Rene Schneider, waskilled in the process. It is worth noting that Allende was later overthrown in a coup that would also claim his life. Though the U.S. denied direct involvement in the successful 1973 coup, Nixon and his national security advisor (and future secretary of state), Henry Kissinger, admitted they had helped in the process. The consequences of their actions are palpable. During the subsequent Pinochet regime, thousands of Chileans were murdered and tens of thousands were tortured and imprisoned for political dissidence. These deaths include a 19-year old, Rodrigo Rojas, who was burned to death by government soldiers. These attacks on Latin American sovereignty were not limited to Chile. Indeed, the U.S. facilitated communications between right wing governments across Latin America in order to silence left wing dissidents, through intimidation, torture, and murder, in the so-called “Operation Condor.” Furthermore, the U.S. ran the “School of Americas,” where some of Latin America’s worst dictators and most viscous soldiers were trained in suburban Georgia. Some of these graduates would go onto massacre approximately one thousand people in the village of El Mozote, while others were famously accused of murdering the leftist Archbishop, Oscar Romero. As recently as 2009 we can see the effects of the SOA. Gen. Romeo Vasquez Valasquez, an SOA graduate, was heavily involved in the 2009 military coup that overthrew leftist Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya.
The United States actions in Vietnam are further evidence to this point. As Martin Luther King Jr. brilliantly laments in his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” despite the Vietnamese’s citation of the American Declaration of Independence in their own independence proclamation, the Americans chose to back the colonialist French in their re-conquest of the area, After the French defeat, the U.S. chose to back the Catholic politician, Ngo Dinh Diem, in the first set of elections. Diem won approximately 98.2% of the vote, and although many recognized that the elections had been rigged, the Americans remained silent. As King describes, Diem was one of the most brutal dictators of his time. Despite his eventual fall, the Vietnamese’s fortunes did not improve as the U.S. continued to support the long line of military dictators which followed. After all, the health of the Vietnamese people was not important to the United States, power and control in the region was, especially considering its role in the “containment” of communism in Asia. This was exemplified by the conduct of U.S. soldiers during the war. For instance, a group of American soldiers killed over 500 civilians in the village of My Lai, including children, infants, and the elderly with many more being brutally raped by the soldiers. The villagers were defenseless and did not fire a single shot at the soldiers. The massacre was only brought to the public’s attention, when an American soldier came forward and spoke out.
The United States has a long history of working alongside dictators in the Middle East as well. During the early years of the George H.W. Bush presidency, the United States maintained a friendly relationship with Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party. However, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. narrative around Hussain began to shift. Despite the United States’ assurances to the Iraqi dictator himself that they would not choose a side in the conflict, Hussein quickly became a murderous dictator that had to be stopped. The subsequent Operation Desert Storm and 2003 invasion of Iraq under Bush and his son President George W. Bush were partially a result of this shift in public perception about the Ba’ath Party and its leader. In January of 1991 80% of Americans supported the U.S. intervention in Kuwait. The latter invasion came in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and an intense campaign by U.S. officials to link Saddam and his administration to the attacks. In March 2003, the first month of the second Iraq War, 76% of Americans supported the decision. Not so coincidentally, in September of the same year, 69% of Americans believed that Saddam was personally involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 82% believed that he had provided support to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and 84% believed that he was attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. wars in Iraq were framed as humanitarian interventions with the latter being framed as self-defense in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the “threat” of Iraqi controlled weapons of mass destruction. However, the interventions came with an immense human cost. Especially for the Iraqi people that the United States allegedly sought to protect from Saddam, but also for the United States which would lose more, often very young, soldiers than in any conflict since Vietnam. In one notorious example from Operation Desert Storm, U.S. airstrikes targeted an Iraqi shelter, killing more than 400 civilians. This unprecedented death toll would be surpassed by the junior Bush’s intervention a decade later. Statistics have shown that at least 165,000 civilians have been killed from direct violence, but the overall death total is estimated to be much higher. This also ignores the “shock” – both psychological and societal – dealt to the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the interventions and the stationing of American troops on Iraqi soil. This was most brutally evidenced in 2004, when it was discovered that American soldiers had tortured and humiliated Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison site. In some circumstances, prisoners were forced to perform grotesque sexual acts and were subjected to sexual assault and rape. In other instances, prisoners were waterboarded or had electric nodes attached to parts of their body and electrocuted. While these acts were widely denounced within the U.S. and abroad, accountability beyond the U.S. military tribunals remain beyond the reach of the victims. This is perhaps a critical result of the U.S. built liberal world order in which the U.S. and its allies have created international tribunals to promote accountability, but the U.S. remains curiously exempt. This is evidenced by the U.S. engagement on the Arabian Peninsula.
While the U.S. has not been directly involved in the Yemeni Civil War, one of its chief allies, Saudi Arabia, has been heavily involved since 2015. According to the UN, thousands of civilians have been killed by violence with 20 million more facing famine as a result of a Saudi blockade in what they describe as one of the worst man-made disasters. The United States has been complicit in this tragedy through its supplying of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and military equipment to the Saudi-led alliance, which also includes major regional powers like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. This has been the policy of both Democratic and Republican governments as both Presidents Obama and Trump have wanted to reaffirm their support for their Middle Eastern allies in order to secure oil trade routes and secure their support against Iran. However, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi the morality of supplying arms to the Saudis has come to the wider public’s attention and has led to numerous calls to impose a ban on arms sales to countries involved in the Saudi-led coalition. Despite this, the Trump administration does not appear overly concerned with sanctioning the Saudis over Khashoggi’s death, instead citing massive arms sales and the “jobs they will create” as justification for their continued support. While blunt, Trump’s comment to Bill O’Reilly that “our country does plenty of killing also” helps to illustrate that with regards to morality, the United States shall only engage with such questions when it is convenient.
Trump’s completely indifferent public response to the Khashoggi murder is clearly deplorable behavior. His continued support for the regime, however, is largely in-line with U.S. foreign policy throughout history. The United States has neverhad a moral foreign policy. The primary motive of U.S. foreign policy has been protecting American economic and political hegemony. Human rights, at most, have always been an afterthought. But this fact has been mired by the self-righteous narrative constructed by American politicians. Trump is not the first immoral president, just the most obtuse.
Therefore, it is a perfect opportunity for those on the left to draw a strong contrast between themselves and Trump, and to offer a vastly different type of foreign policy. This moment is especially important, because of the growing popularity of more radical politicians on the left. Self-proclaimed democratic socialists, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have brought the morality of many domestic policies into question, but there has not yet been a strong push against prevailing U.S. foreign policy dogma. If the new left truly wants to separate itself from the establishment politicians, who are deeply unpopular, then they should seize the opportunity to push for a truly moral, anti-imperialist foreign policy, based around people, not profits.