Then, on Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC he planned to attend the conference in Saudi Arabia later this month.
“We are concerned about what is the status of Mr. Khashoggi,” Mnuchin said. “Although I haven’t had direct conversation with the Saudis, I know other people within the executive branch have, and those discussions are under way. I am planning on going at this point. If more information comes out and changes, we could look at that, but I am planning on going.”
Paradoxically, this equivocation does make one thing clear: For now, at least, we’re seeing the end of American lip service to human rights. Past U.S. administrations were willing to overlook abuses by allies—including, notably, Saudi Arabia—but continued to rhetorically support human rights and frown at abuses. The Trump administration is either unwilling to go even that far, or uninterested.
“Other administrations, some have been more aggressive, some have been less aggressive,” in calling out human-rights abuses, Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who also served in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, told The Atlantic. He is now at the Middle East Institute. “Frankly speaking, I think that really, over these past years, for the most part, administrations have been less focused on human rights and civil liberties. But I would also say that I’m not aware of any administration, certainly not in the last 40 years, which has been so vocal in saying that they don’t care about human-rights issues.”
The U.S. has tended to spin a narrative of itself as the noble defender of freedom and human rights around the globe, whether against abusive superpowers (the Soviet Union, China) or smaller-scale killers (Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein), but it is easy to construct an alternative history of the U.S. turning a blind eye to abuses. To pick a few lowlights, that history runs from the U.S. assent to genocide in Bangladesh in 1971, documented by Gary J. Bass; the painfully slow move to squeeze apartheid South Africa; backing for Jonas Savimbi in Angola and right-wing paramilitaries in Latin America; and, more recently, inaction in Darfur.
Saudi Arabia was always a notable fly in the ointment of American moral leadership. Because of the country’s regional importance and oil supplies, Washington generally overlooked the kingdom’s repression of women, brutal handling of dissent, crackdowns on Shias, and exportation of extremism to elsewhere in the Muslim world. Most recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified continuing support for Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, reportedly over the objections of State Department officials and growing outrage in Congress over the civilian toll of the conflict.
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