Trump's foreign policy was a humanitarian disaster
The Biden and Trump administrations had very different policies toward human rights abuses abroad
President Biden is receiving an onslaught of criticism from progressive voters and media outlets over America's role in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Massive pro-Palestine protests are regular occurrences in cities across the country, and Biden is regularly interrupted by protestors while speaking during campaign rallies.
And because we're entering election season, there's a narrative building that this discontent among progressives is damaging President Biden's approval ratings and will culminate in him losing the 2024 election. There's even a report that that his own aides are worried about this.
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What’s happening in Gaza right now is a humanitarian disaster. It is, like the events of October 7, unspeakably horrific. But the suggestion from some on the left that Biden’s support for Israel should cost him the 2024 election is wrong.
And the main reason it’s wrong is that his opponent is Donald Trump.
The bureaucracy that shapes the relationship between US foreign policy and human rights doesn't get a lot of play in the press. But it really should, because it illustrates the stark contrast between Biden and Trump’s policies on human rights issues abroad. Equating the two is a pernicious lie that aims to erode Biden's support and could return Trump and his moral bankruptcy to the White House.
Trump ignored or selectively recognized human rights abuses abroad
One of the more infamous (and headline generating) aspects of Trump’s time in office was his obsequious relationships with foreign dictators. From his tendency to wax poetic about Putin to his loving pen-pal relationship with Kim Jong Un, Trump seemed bizarrely and singularly attracted to the worst leaders in the world.
But like many aspects of the Trump administration, the truly morally bankrupt stuff didn’t often show up on CNN chyrons, it happened through the calculated maneuvering of government bureaucracy.
The State Department’s annual human rights reports are a great example of this. The reports are widely used by US policymakers and allies as a resource for understanding foreign human rights abuses, and their intel factors into all sorts of international policy, ranging from guidance on refugee asylum claims to whether a country receives international aid. At the end of Trump’s presidency, the Asylum Research Centre conducted an analysis of these annual human rights reports and compared them to those issued during Obama's tenure. They concluded that the reports produced by the Trump administration displayed a shocking disregard for human rights in foreign countries.
In Iraq, Trump’s State Department omitted any mention of torture in prisons and eliminated previous reports’ claims that sexual and gender-based violence was underreported in the country. In Eritrea, they removed documentation around widespread sexual violence against women in military training camps. And the reports also echoed extreme domestic GOP social policies by removing the Reproductive Rights section of the report and by omitting violence against LGBTI organizations and activists in Iraq.
These State Department reports didn’t occur in a vacuum — they were part of a broader Trump administration attitude of general disinterest in human rights abuses abroad, as was their decision to remove the US from the UN Human Rights Council. For all its faults, the UNHRC has a track record of success. Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch said that despite the council’s moral inconsistencies, it “has done some very good work, highlighting human rights abuses around the world, scrutinizing and bringing facts to light which enable us to holding these countries to account.” The Trump administration didn't care, and dropped participation in the entire Council as a gesture of protest against its criticisms of Israel.
Apathy (with the occasional and very selective condemnation) was the norm under Trump administration policy, even in the face of significant evidence and bipartisan support. In the case of violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Trump administration ignored a near unanimous House resolution calling the act a genocide. Conversely, Trump’s White House swiftly labeled ISIS’ attacks on Christians a genocide.
For four years, the Trump administration engaged in this kind of morally dubious foreign policymaking. In contrast, Biden has rejoined the UN Human Rights Council, correctly labeled the violence against Rohingya Muslims a genocide, and reversed some of glaring omissions in the State Department’s annual human rights report. Of course, there are critiques to be made about Biden’s foreign human rights agenda. But there’s just no comparison to what we saw under Trump.
Civilian deaths from airstrikes rose significantly under Trump
Similar to the State Department’s human rights report, airstrikes are an area where a US President can take a relatively under-covered and bureaucratic aspect of policymaking and shape humanitarian outcomes across the world. And it’s another area where Trump was a humanitarian disaster.
According to a study by the Watson Institute at Brown University, civilian airstrike deaths in Afghanistan increased by 330% during the Trump presidency. And the Watson study largely credits this increase to a Trump regulation that relaxed the rules of engagement for airstrikes at the beginning of his presidency. As a result, the US military bombed more indiscriminately and more civilians died.
Or, as the Watson study says quite bluntly, “When the United States tightens its rules of engagement and restricts air strikes where civilians are at risk, civilian casualties tend to go down; when it loosens those restrictions, civilians are injured and killed in greater numbers.”
This wasn’t exclusive to Afghanistan. Airstrikes under Trump increased sixfold in Yemen, and there were more civilian deaths from airstrikes in Somalia under Trump than under Bush and Obama combined. Trump also oversaw a 200% increase in airstrike deaths in Iraq and Syria.
In another move demonstrating how little Trump cared about airstrikes striking civilians, he removed an Obama-era rule that mandated reporting on civilian deaths from airstrikes.
Conversely, Biden reversed Trump’s free-for-all airstrike policy, and tightened strike rules to ensure a “near certainty” that any strike does not injure civilians. He also banned signature strikes, a form of drone strike that targets groups of people and that is frequently cited as the form of airstrike resulting in the highest civilian casualties. As a result, in the first year of his presidency, Biden “nearly ended the drone war.”
Biden did increase airstrikes in Somalia in 2022 in response to a wave of fighting from al-Shabaab militants. But overall, deaths from airstrikes have plummeted under Biden from the historic peaks they reached under Trump. Again, this isn’t an issue that receives substantial coverage. But airstrikes are a significant part of modern US military operations. More humane policies that lessen the impact airstrikes have on civilian populations make a major difference.
Personnel is policy
To this point, I’ve been referring to the Trump administration and Trump as pretty interchangeable actors. And while it’s true that the buck really stops with the President when it comes to administration policy, it’s important to understand that a lot of this policy, whether it’s airstrikes or human rights reports, is conducted by cabinet members and staffers. To understand the humanitarian failings of Trump’s foreign policy, it’s important to understand the people who helped carry it out.
Stephen Miller was a famous Trump administration neerdowell, and he’s become a real boogeyman amongst liberal and tuned in anti-Trump types. And for good reason: He was the architect of Trump’s infamously inhumane immigration agenda.
Still, Miller was just one player in Trump’s assault on the administrative state, which empowered bad government officials across the board and made it harder for agencies to uphold humanitarian missions abroad. This was most apparent at the State Department, where 16% of civilian employees with 25+ years of experience left in the first year of the Trump administration. This didn’t just result in less experienced policymakers conducting foreign policy; it also strengthened the role of more extreme right wing political appointees.
Robert Destro was the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, where he played a big role in crafting the controversial human rights reports discussed above. So it’s no surprise that he was affiliated with the famously anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council and has been a vocal legal opponent of gay marriage. Sam Brownback, the famously unpopular former Governor of Kansas, was the State Department’s Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. And in addition to completely mismanaging Kansas as Governor, he also equated abortion with slavery and vocally opposed LGBTQ rights. These are just two of the more prominent Trump administration officials. Dozens of staffers across the Trump administration had connections to various white nationalist groups, extreme right wing immigration groups, and anti-Muslim groups.
In Trump’s chaotic White House, these staffers had permission to effect an inordinate amount of influential policy, including human rights policies abroad. This happened in large part because the staffing operations were largely bare bones and had very little experience. As the Guardian noted, “The transition team Trump has sent to the state department has shown little interest in policy issues. Departments covering large regions of the world say they have had no contact with his representatives.”
Michael Lewis’ book, The Fifth Risk, goes into this in fascinating detail, but I think this passage demonstrates the exceedingly indiscriminate criteria the Trump administration deployed for the staffers they did select:
The transition team made lists of likely candidates for all 500 jobs, plus other lists of informed people to roll into the various federal agencies the day after the election, to be briefed on whatever the federal agencies were doing. They gathered the names for these lists by traveling the country and talking to people: Republicans who had served in government, Trump’s closest advisers, recent occupants of the jobs that needed filling. Then they set about investigating any candidates for glaring flaws and embarrassing secrets and conflicts of interest. At the end of each week, Christie handed over binders, with lists of names of people who might do the jobs well, to Kushner, Donald Jr and the others. “They probed everything,” says a senior Trump transition official. “‘Who is this person?’ ‘Where did this person come from?’ They only ever rejected one person: Manafort’s secretary.”
The stakes in 2024
President Biden has less than a year left in his first term, and he’s essentially a coin flip away from losing to Trump in the general election. Which is a real shame, because the appointments across his administration have been a remarkable departure from what we saw under Trump.
At State, Biden made it a priority to reverse Trump’s hollowing out of the Department, and he’s grown the civil service by 10%. He’s also appointed some really experienced and talented people to positions that shape human rights policy across the world. Uzra Zeya is the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and before she came to the position, she spent 27 years working at the foreign service on issues such as countering gender-based violence and developing peace processes. Dafna Rand was just nominated to serve as assistant secretary for Democracy, Human rights, and Labor, and she’s spent 20 years working on a human rights policy portfolio across the State Department and National Security Council. Credentials of this caliber are the norm across numerous other influential foreign policymakers in Biden’s administration.
One can have real grievances with how Biden has handled the conflict in Gaza, on both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine sides. But the US presidency can be an amoral beast of an institution, and international conflict involves difficult tradeoffs. Biden is surrounded by policymakers with bonafide experience, and human rights have been factored into foreign policy far more under his administration than Trumps’. Their track records are far from indistinguishable.
It’s also worth noting that a second Trump term would likely exacerbate the same disturbing trends we saw during his first term in office. The very real threat Trump poses to American democracy and his plans for an even more draconian domestic anti-immigrant agenda rightly get a lot of media attention. But international human rights policy clearly won’t fare any better. Whether it’s Steve Bannon’s call for 4,000 shock troops to “dismantle the government brick by brick,” or credible fears that Trump will go to even further lengths to appease and empower foreign dictators, a second Trump term will hollow out the United States’ capacity (and desire) to uphold foreign human rights at unprecedented levels.
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