Trump–Terrible on Turkey, On-Point with Saudi Arabia
Two separate events over the last week have led me to conflicting assessments of President Trump’s foreign policy choices. One I praise, and the other I am extremely disappointed with. My views might sound contradictory, so it led me to wonder, how can I articulate my deep dissatisfaction with the way our administration handled Turkey and give praise for Trump’s interaction with the Arab/Muslim World during his trip to Saudi Arabia? If you want to understand more about these two fascinating countries, read on.
What happened with regard to Turkey?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington, DC last week to meet with President Trump. While there, Erdogan’s Turkish security officers assaulted protestors on our land, in our capital city (some of whom were American citizens). These actions demonstrate a complete lack of respect for our country and was one of the most arrogant displays of power I’ve seen in a while. Turkish officials punched, kicked, and bloodied men and women, and then their official Turkish press berated U.S. law enforcement for not doing their job to deal with protestors. Wow. Just wow.
U.S. response — Turkey
In diplomatic terms, the U.S. government gave Turkey a mild slap on the hand. USG horror at this assault on our freedoms was not communicated by President Trump to Erdogan (if he did, he did not advise the press). Instead, this statement was issued by the State Department:
“We are concerned by the violent incidents involving protesters and Turkish security personnel Tuesday evening,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in statement.
“Violence is never an appropriate response to free speech, and we support the rights of people everywhere to free expression and peaceful protest. We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms.”
Here was our chance to stand against an authoritarian regime, but instead, we behaved as if Erdogan can do whatever he wants on U.S. soil. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear that this event affected the tone or outcome of our bilateral discussions.
I really don’t know how Erdogan can act like Russian President Vladimir Putin and still be a part of NATO. I don’t know how you can completely wipe out freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience and threaten to send ISIS operatives into Europe to attack us, and still be welcomed into our country for a meeting with the president. It makes no sense. He’s spitting in our face and we’re just standing there smiling?
What happened with regard to Saudi Arabia?
President Trump visited Saudi Arabia and King Salman took the chance to invite dozens of other countries’ leaders to join him for Trump’s first meeting abroad. The meetings turned into an Arab Islamic American Summit where numerous agreements were signed to counter extremism and work against Iran. Massive defense packages were signed and many pictures were taken. The excitement there was palpable. It was clear that the Arabs are excited to have a better partnership with the U.S., particularly with regard to Iran—which they (rightly) view as an existential threat.
Human Rights in Turkey and Saudi Arabia– the Similarities
Both countries have abominable human rights records.
Human Rights in Turkey and Saudi Arabia– the Differences
Now here is what I believe to be the key difference and a very important meter for judging the way in which the US should interact with these countries:
We should judge regimes by the relationships they have with the people they govern.
The lack of freedoms in Turkey are dictated by Erdogan and his henchmen to a public that largely decries such moves. Turkey is a regime that is absolutely crushing the freedoms and rights the Turkish people have enjoyed since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern day Turkey and established a secular society….It’s a top-down disaster and the Turkish people are suffering under this tyrant.
As crazy as it might sound, Saudi leaders are some of the most progressive people in the country (including the octogenarian king and his late half-brother, former King Abdallah) which sounds crazy but is true. Many of the lack of freedoms in Saudi Arabia can be blamed on society itself—the family, tribal and religious power players. Unlike Erdogan forcing changes on unwilling Turks, Saudi values are largely held in place by various elements of society. Saudi Arabia is more bottom-up, versus top-down which I would not have believed had I not spent a lot of time in the kingdom (as well as Turkey). It is truly counterintuitive.
Saudi Arabia is led by a monarchy, but here’s what most people don’t know—it’s a tribal monarchy. This means that the Saudi king does not rule as an dictator, but governs with the acquiescence and support of various families, tribes, religious institutions, etc. Although it looks nothing like ours, Saudi Arabia does have its own unique “balance of power”.
For example, King Salman and many in his retinue are willing to grant women the right to vote and the right to drive a car. But if the Saudi royal family instituted such changes without requisite support of Saudi’s power brokers, they would be chancing their own existence. The same would be true with regard to religious liberties. I know many senior Saudi leaders that support the right of other faiths to worship as they please in the kingdom (i.e. to have Bibles and hold their own church services); however, they can’t say this publically or they could be assassinated.
With Turkey, we should seek to isolate this tyrant and bond together with Europe and other countries to ensure Erdogan does not have our backing. If we were to support Erdogan (politically, economically or otherwise), we’d be accepting his authoritarian behavior.
However, I do not assess that supporting the Saudi regime would hurt the people because their system is set up to balance alliances between tribal and religious leaders and we have no influence in this arena. The United States is not capable of changing the minds of all the Saudi people who do not want to extend more freedoms to its citizens. We need to encourage change, but change must come from within the society that created its laws and legal structures. In this case, I would argue that the most effective means of encouraging movement towards greater freedoms is through engagement, not isolation.
We should build collaborative and respectful relationships but we must be willing to use this leverage when we have specific issues that need to be resolved (such as the release of the innocent American and Egyptian NGO workers that were held without trial in Egypt for years).