WASHINGTON – Whatever the eventual consequences of the Saudi Arabian regime’s suspected murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump’s initial response indicated much about the priorities of America First foreign policy.
His instincts were commercial and transactional – a concern that America might lose defense contracts in a confrontation with the Saudi government. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country,” he explained.
Trump began his diplomatic confrontation with Saudi Arabia by pointing out (and exaggerating) the kingdom’s economic leverage against us – the deal completely stripped of art.
Trump has reduced the cost of oppression and political murder in the world by declaring it none of America’s business. And when you reduce the cost of something, you get more of it.
The aggregation of such horrors – the sum of killing and human misery at this historical moment – is stunning. And America’s president is not concerned enough to be ashamed of it.
There is the Saudi war in Yemen, which has caused massive displacement, hunger and disease. The Trump administration has certified that the Saudis are taking sufficient measures to prevent civilian casualties. The United Nations, meanwhile, has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of war crimes, including arbitrary detention, torture and rape.
Syria remains a bleeding wound. Hundreds of thousands have died. More than 5 million people have left the country as refugees. More than 6 million are internally displaced. During the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the U.S. has slashed the number of refugees it will admit to the lowest level in four decades.
In China, perhaps a million ethnic Uighurs are being held in re-education camps. Yet the whole of Trump’s relationship with China seems determined by the level of our trade deficit.
Then there is South Sudan’s five-year civil war, in which perhaps 380,000 people have died and around 2.5 million people have fled the country. Decades of American effort to help give birth to that nation are being washed away on Trump’s watch.
I conduct this tour of global horrors, not to argue that America could easily resolve each one, but to point out that they don’t even register in the president’s priorities. This does violence to American ideals. But it also illustrates a foreign-policy law. A vacuum of American leadership is not occupied by good and pleasant things. It is filled by ruthless power politics, aimless allies, aggressive authoritarians, gathering threats and cruelty without consequence. And the trail of evidence leads from the villages of Myanmar to a consulate in Istanbul.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.