TSG IntelBrief: Trump’s Revisionist Human Rights Policy
April 6, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The Trump administration has signaled a significant shift in U.S. posture toward the al-Sisi regime in Egypt, as well as a willingness to publicly forego the promotion of human rights as a foreign policy priority.
• The administration’s disavowal of public criticism over the state of human rights in Egypt is an attempt to close the book on one of the most contentious periods of the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
• The new stance toward Egypt comes on the back of several actions by the Trump administration that cast doubt on its commitment to human rights promotion more broadly.
• Although the administration has previously professed a commitment to supporting human rights, its apparent reticence to enforce that commitment effectively relegates the promotion of human rights to a policy in name only.
With the April 3 state visit of Egyptian President Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, the Trump administration has signaled a significant shift in U.S. posture toward Egypt’s autocratic regime, as well as a willingness to publicly forego the promotion of human rights as a foreign policy priority. In the run up to the visit, Trump administration officials confirmed that the U.S. would no longer publicly criticize the Egyptian government over its human rights abuses, marking a sharp departure from successive U.S. administrations that have sought—largely in vain and to varying degrees—to encourage political and human rights reforms in Cairo. The move aligns with other recent attempts by the Trump administration to de-emphasize the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad, which it believes does not serve the immediate security interests of the U.S.
The administration’s disavowal of public criticism over the state of human rights in Egypt—along with President Trump’s unqualified praise for the country’s ruling autocrat—is an attempt to close the book on one of the most contentious periods of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Indeed, President Trump is looking to reset relations with Egypt, a country that his administration views as a critical partner in the fight against terrorism. Since taking power in July 2013, the al-Sisi regime has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on human rights and civil liberties in the country that has targeted both Islamist and secular opposition groups alike. The crackdown has included the violent suppression of political opposition, forced disappearances, and the detainment of tens of thousands of political prisoners, among them several U.S. citizens. In response, the Obama administration placed unprecedented restrictions on U.S. military aid to Egypt and leveled strong public criticism against the regime, further deteriorating an already strained bilateral relationship. The al-Sisi regime has maintained that the abrogation of human and political rights in Egypt is a necessary price to pay in the fight to maintain internal stability and defeat terrorism. The Trump administration’s new stance toward Egypt suggests that it largely accepts that proposition.
The new stance towards Egypt comes on the back of several actions by the Trump administration that cast doubt on its commitment to human rights promotion more broadly. On March 29, the State Department announced that it would revoke human rights conditions placed by the Obama administration on arms sales to Bahrain, another critical U.S. ally that has brutally repressed domestic political opposition. Additionally, the absence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the State Department’s release of its annual human rights report in March was largely interpreted as yet another sign that the traditional emphasis on human rights abroad does not have the full backing of senior Trump administration officials. Likewise, the administration’s budget proposal includes deep cuts in assistance to human rights organizations, suggesting a sharp departure from the country’s historic promotion of principles that have served as pillars of U.S. credibility abroad.
Although the Trump administration has previously professed a commitment to supporting human rights, its apparent reticence to use the levers of American power to enforce that commitment—especially where security interests are at stake—effectively relegates the promotion of human rights to a policy in name only. While the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad is a clear moral imperative, it is also a long-term strategy to ensure global stability through strengthening international norms around fundamental human rights and freedoms. In that sense, prioritizing human rights and democracy has historically been both a means and an end of U.S. foreign policy. Should the Trump administration uniformly give precedence to short-term security prerogatives at the expense of long-term efforts to bolster the foundation of the free world, the U.S. risks unwittingly aiding in the rise of global autocracy. Such an outcome would thereby undermine the very system that the U.S. has spent decades working to construct, and from which it has benefitted so greatly.
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