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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The world pays for Trump’s indifference to human rights

Syrian boys play on a destroyed car in the former rebel-held Syrian town of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, April 19, five days after the Syrian army declared that all anti-regime forces have left Eastern Ghouta, following a blistering two month offensive on the rebel enclave. AFP/Getty Images

Of the moral derelictions of America’s immoral president, among the most pernicious is his disdain for democracy and human rights — indeed, for simple humanity.

Consider Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s barbaric chemical weapons attack against his own people. Days before, President Trump said blithely: “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it.”

The “other people” — Assad, Russia, and Iran — proceeded to do just that, killing dozens of people in the city of Douma with chemical weapons. This was the most blatant of an estimated eight such attacks this year. It followed a month of slaughter in the area, through which Assad and his allies killed an estimated 1,600 people. Throughout, Trump said absolutely nothing.


Now, posturing, Trump has launched another military attack, replicating his showy but meaningless air strike in 2017. Which, like the last, will change nothing for Assad’s victims — to whom Trump denies refuge in America.

Others, too, will pay for Trump’s indifference. The strategic interest of Russia and Iran in propping up Assad transcends cementing their power in the Middle East. As Bret Stephens points out in The New York Times, they share an authoritarian interest in crushing a popular revolt against a murderous dictatorship, while demonstrating that America no longer cares about maintaining humane global norms.

Many Americans still do. Our president does not.

No doubt America’s past support of human rights was studded with hypocrisy — including alliances with murderous autocrats such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and the Shah of Iran. But America’s growing commitment to human rights became part of what defined us — and our leadership in the world.

No more. As a practical matter, America’s president has switched sides.

“Democracy,” Freedom House reported in January, “faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017.” In particular, it said, America has “retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy.”


Instead, Trump congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi on winning rigged elections. He commends President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for a war against drugs rooted in extrajudicial killings. He praises Xi Jinping of China on consolidating his repressive rule. He meets with the leading jailers of journalists — China, Russia, and Turkey — without mentioning freedom of the press.

In glaring contrast, he slights our democratic allies and scorns global institutions. He slams the door on refugees from murder and oppression — including the women and children of Syria. To underscore his contempt for moral sentiment, he fails to appoint an assistant secretary of state for human rights.

Little wonder, in the words of former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, that autocrats around the globe are “taking active measures to accelerate and sustain the decline of the West.” In its report for 2017-18, Amnesty International laments: “Over the past year, leaders have pushed hate, fought against rights, ignored crimes against humanity, and blithely let inequality and suffering spin out of control.”

Emboldened by Trump’s silence, Russia attacks Western democratic institutions through electoral meddling, fake news, and other forms of propaganda that pit citizens against each other and create fissures between allies. China interferes in the politics of weaker countries while supporting autocracy worldwide. Together, they strong-arm the UN into abandoning an office charged with promoting human rights. Says Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “There doesn’t seem to be any political price for acting illiberally. No one of stature is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression.”


In this risk-free environment, erstwhile democracies like Egypt and Venezuela decimate civil liberties, while Hungary and Poland backslide into repression. The persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar continues unabated. Autocrats in Syria, Myanmar, China, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela invoke Trump’s cry of “fake news” to cover up their crimes and gag journalists and critics.

America cannot prevent all this by speaking out; nor did Trump conjure these tragedies alone. But our allies and all those hoping for democracy and human rights must be encouraged to stand against their enemies. In this effort, the United States is indispensable. If we continue down the soulless path of Donald Trump, we become simply another contestant in the Darwinian struggle of great powers — feared rather than respected, reviled instead of admired.

We are well on the way. A recent Gallup poll of 134 countries showed that approval of the United States has plunged a record low of 30 percent — behind China, and just ahead of Russia. That’s what happens when an American president tramples on global decency.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.