How Donald Trump betrayed American values and Jeffersonian legacy with trip to Saudi Arabia
Patrick Mendis says the transactional president is undermining US democratic ideals with his economic determinism, as seen in his closeness to the Saudi kingdom, which he previously condemned as a top funder of terrorism
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Saudi Arabia has for years been considered one of the worst human rights offenders. The disoriented White House has thus mistakenly transmitted the exact antithesis of American values on religious freedom, human rights, democracy and personal liberty that would emphasise the country’s moral vision and current standing in the world.
Trump, a former businessman, is a transactional leader as opposed to a transformational one. The Trump White House, with political operatives as his brain trust, is a hodgepodge of short-term tacticians, neither fully immersed in US history nor in international affairs. Their policies appear to be measured in pure financial terms.
The foundation of American primacy has, however, derived from the reflective actions of “transformational” leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.
The current White House and State Department, with Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – another transactional businessman – are being questioned about their abilities to manage the complex organisations of the US government, where, as designed, there is “nobody in charge,” as the late US statesman Harlan Cleveland put it.
Given all this, why did the White House choose the absolute Saudi monarchy, whose strict sharia law – the Islamic religious law Trump has repeatedly denounced – is inimical to American values and traditions?
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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the financier and promoter of Salafism, a Sunni movement that advocates the medieval traditions of the Prophet Mohammed. These forms of Wahhabism in the Muslim faith are also being exported through the madrassa school system – the fountainhead of Islamist terrorism around the globe. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens. The 9/11 Commission report found that al-Qaeda, which masterminded the attacks under Osama bin Laden, raised money from Saudi society. As a private citizen, Trump himself had called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism”.
Tillerson acknowledged the Saudi human rights problem at a congressional hearing, followed by sending his “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”, which documents human rights violations in the kingdom.
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In his recent speech at the State Department, Tillerson argued that American values must take a back seat while national security and commercial interests drive President Trump’s “America First” strategy. He maintains a US “foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military.” For him, “we can only do that with economic prosperity” as the Saudis, Russian and Chinese do.
Such economic determinism with assorted other elements of the “America First” plan – like banning or deporting immigrants – is a dramatic departure from America’s Jeffersonian foreign policy tradition of championing its founding values and protecting human rights.
Trump said, “Saudi Arabia – and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend US$40 million, US$50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” His commercial interactions with the Saudi royal family go back to the 1990s, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud had helped “bail” him out after his Plaza Hotel in New York and his Atlantic City casinos were struggling.
While in Riyadh, the US president signed a US$110 billion arms deal. Trump then said, “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism.”
Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, Iran – a Shia Muslim nation – was not directly involved in terrorist attacks on American soil.
Unlike the civilisational societies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and even China, the United States was created by an enlightened band of founding fathers with a global vision for the new republic.
Welcoming immigrants from all corners of the globe, America has become the world and the world is America. The Jeffersonian ideals embedded in the Statue of Liberty – a gift from the French – and Ellis Island in New York must be the bedrock of American foreign policy.
The Jeffersonian inspiration is the “invisible attraction” that makes America stronger and more prosperous, not “a strong military” as Tillerson has argued. The most logical rationale came from Trump’s defence secretary, James Mattis, who wisely remarked: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
The deal-making, transactional president must not forget founding father and presidential forebear Thomas Jefferson, whose iconic memorial to the south of the White House keeps a watchful eye on the chief diplomat in the Oval Office.
Indifference to Jeffersonian values and American foreign policy tradition, which made America a great democratic nation, will have associated consequences for the troubled presidency.
Professor Patrick Mendis, a naturalised US citizen and a former State Department official and military professor during the Clinton and Bush administrations, is an associate-in-research at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the Harvard University or the US government