The Corner

National Security & Defense

Trump in Saudi Arabia: A Brief Reflection on Values

The White House has shared a draft of the speech that President Trump will deliver in Saudi Arabia. It contains a striking — indeed, memorable — sentence:

“We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

I imagine that most people will applaud this sentence, especially those who style themselves “realists.” Of course, we all consider ourselves realists. You’ll never hear anyone say, “I’m an unrealist, you know.”

So, let’s get real: Raif Badawi is a Saudi. He is also a political prisoner. He has been lashed. He has been lashed and imprisoned for blogging in favor of freedom, democracy, and human rights — not just for Americans and Englishmen, but for Saudis, too.

(For a piece I did on him and his wife, Ensaf Haidar, go here.)

How about Badawi’s lawyer (and onetime brother-in-law)? His name is Waleed Abulkhair, and he, too, has been imprisoned.

Don’t these Saudis have a right to a say in how their country will be? In “how to live, what to do, who to be,” etc.? Why should their government — which governs without the consent of the governed — have the only say?

At the moment, I am in Oslo, Norway, taking part in the Oslo Freedom Forum. I just did an interview with Grace Gao, the daughter of one of the most heroic men in China, and, indeed, in all the world: Gao Zhisheng. He is a human-rights lawyer. He was imprisoned and tortured for ten years. He is now under a severe form of house arrest. His Christian faith has allowed him to hold on to his sanity.

What about him? Is he not part of China?

And how about Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize? He too is a political prisoner. Doesn’t he deserve some say in “how to live, what to do,” etc.? Must the Chinese Communist Party have total power over 1.4 billion people?

In a recent interview, President Trump called the boss of that party, Xi Jinping, “a great guy.” He also said, “I believe he likes me a lot.”

Well, that’s wonderful. But as Vladimir Bukovsky says, “What about the boys in the camps?” Liberal-democratic governments should go about their business, doing what they need to do, including dealing with illiberal and anti-democratic regimes. But every now and then, they should pause to ask, “How will it look to the boys in the camps?”

President Reagan always made a distinction between nonconsensual governments and people — human beings and the regimes that rule them. So did George W. Bush.

Solzhenitsyn made a memorable comment about the United Nations. That body is not so much the united nations, or peoples, as the united governments, or regimes — many of which govern without the consent of the people.

On meeting Jeane Kirkpatrick, Sakharov said, “Your name is known in every cell in the Gulag.” Why? Because she had remembered human beings. Even when dealing with the Soviet government, she named the names of Soviet prisoners on the floor of the United Nations.

In the Gulag, prisoners somehow found out that Reagan had declared 1983 the Year of the Bible. One of those prisoners, Anatoly Shcharansky, started to do Bible study with a fellow prisoner. They called their sessions “Reaganite readings.”

While running for president, Donald Trump was asked about Vladimir Putin. He said many things, including, “I think that he is a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader, he’s represented his country — that’s the way the country is being represented.” Yes, undemocratically. Unjustly.

In Saudi Arabia, the American secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, stood with the Saudi foreign minister and called for freedom of speech — in Iran.

Which is great. Moreover, a little selectivity is natural in human affairs, and in diplomacy, and in foreign policy. But sometimes your selectivity can be hypocritical in the extreme. It can look ridiculous.

Gao Zhisheng has a heroic wife, Geng He, who in 2009 sent a letter to the U.S. Congress. She said,

“I remember that, when my husband was still free, whenever major human-rights cases arose in China, he would always look towards the United States. He always said: The United States is the cornerstone of world freedom, human rights, and social order; the United States would not tolerate despotic rule and the wanton abuse of the weak and the masses.”

Obviously, the United States needs Saudi Arabia as an ally. It needs other dictatorships as allies too. Many, many compromises have to be made to get along in this wicked and dangerous world. But Americans should remember the distinction between rulers and ruled. And that goes double for the president.

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