After Canada’s foreign minister tweeted concern about Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment of prominent human rights and women’s rights activists, the Saudis this week tried to punish Canada and intimidate other potential critics. They vowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs; expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled their own; froze future trade and investment with Canada; and threatened to yank thousands of Saudi students out of Canadian universities. Normally, when confronted with this type of challenge, the State Department, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, would issue a statement something like this:
“The United States firmly supports the universal right of all people to express their views freely and to criticize their government’s policies peacefully. The United States is deeply concerned by the recent imprisonment of leading women and civil society activists in Saudi Arabia and joins Canada in urging their immediate release. We regret that Saudi Arabia, an important partner of the United States, has reacted to Canada’s expression of concern with excessive rhetoric and actions detrimental to both countries. We encourage both Saudi Arabia and our ally Canada to resume dialogue in order to restore normal relations.”
That is how, consistent with America’s traditional global leadership in defense of human rights, we would reiterate longstanding objections to Saudi abuses. We would support Canada, a NATO ally and indispensable neighbor, whose statement was neither harsh nor ill-conceived. We would signal subtly to Saudi Arabia that if they have a problem with Canada over this, then they also have one with the United States, because neither of us will be cowed into curtailing our criticism of friend or foe, when warranted.
Instead, after a shockingly weak initial response on Tuesday, the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, mustered the following:
“We have a regular dialogue with the Government of Saudi Arabia on human rights and also other issues. This particular case regarding Canada, we have raised that with the Government of Saudi Arabia. They are friends, they are partners, as is Canada as well. Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them.”
False equivalency. Refusal to criticize obvious human rights abuses. Abdication of American moral leadership.
This is the hallmark of the Trump administration’s approach to violations of human rights, particularly when committed by autocratic friends. In this instance, the administration left Canada swinging in the wind, gave Europeans cover to gaze at their feet rather than stand and be counted, and conveyed to Saudi Arabia and others that they can commit abuses without a word of concern, much less condemnation, from Washington.
The United States’ stance reflects the carte blanche we have given the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to act with impunity on a wide range of issues. The crown prince has been feted and fawned over from Wall Street to Hollywood, where his acolytes hail his economic diversification and social reforms, including granting women the right to drive and young people the freedom to attend selected foreign movies and concerts.
While these steps are welcome, they mask a darker set of domestic and foreign policies that the crown prince is pursuing to the detriment of American interests. He has harshly cracked down on activists, imprisoned royal family members and businessmen without due process on corruption charges and briefly held hostage the prime minister of Lebanon. Alongside the United Arab Emirates, the crown prince has prosecuted a relentless war against the Iranian-backed Houthi in Yemen, where he has used American logistical support and weapons, some provided by the Obama administration, to bomb civilians indiscriminately, reportedly collaborated when convenient with Al Qaeda fighters, and constrained the delivery of desperately needed assistance.
For more than a year, Saudi Arabia has persisted in blockading neighboring Qatar and is now digging a canal to turn it into an island, despite the presence of 10,000 American troops, to punish Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorism and its relationship with Iran. Most dangerously, the crown prince and his regional allies urged the Trump administration to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, while stoking potential conflict with Iran.
The United States is following, not leading, in our newly unconditional partnership with Saudi Arabia. We consistently acquiesce in the crown prince’s actions, however impulsive or harmful. For reasons that remain unclear, President Trump has signaled to the crown prince (who is likely to lead the kingdom for decades) that America is at his service.
Defenders of this administration’s foreign policy love to tout the much-improved American relationship with Saudi Arabia, several Gulf countries and Israel, drawing a sharp contrast with the Obama era. It’s no wonder these countries love President Trump, because unlike under his predecessors, the United States has rolled over and played dead while they do whatever they please. Not exactly the stuff of leadership.
Susan E. Rice (@AmbassadorRice), the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, is a contributing opinion writer.