(CNSNews.com) – Former key members of the Obama administration are taking President Trump to task over his approach to the missing Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi – but that administration’s response to the kingdom’s poor human rights record drew considerable criticism too.
Trump on Thursday reiterated his earlier stance that the administration is troubled by the affair and expects answers from the Saudis.
But he also raised eyebrows by indicating that any U.S. response to Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder would likely not include an end to lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He also noted that the alleged incident took place in Turkey, and that Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen.
“Devastating,” tweeted former ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in response to those remarks. “Trump’s cruelty and selfishness are unrivaled by any American public figure in memory.”
“Amazing that Trump decided to tell the Saudis that he doesn’t give a sh*t if they murder journalists via a press spray. Very subtle,” commented former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“Trump message is that America – and by extension the priceless values we stand for – are for sale,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to Obama.
Former spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N. Erin Pelton tweeted, “This is the most honest thing Trump has said in a long time. Usually he just lies. Here he’s admitting he doesn't care about universal values or human rights.”
Former Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer retweeted a controversial posting by MSNBC host Chris Hayes implying that the Saudis pay Trump in exchange for a green light to kill regime critics.
In earlier reaction to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoing Trump saying the U.S. was concerned about Khashoggi’s disappearance, former national security advisor Susan Rice had a one-word response: “ ‘Concerned’ ???”
‘It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions …’
U.S. administrations historically have maintained strong ties with the oil-rich kingdom despite its egregious violations of religious freedoms, mistreatment of women, and suppression of dissent.
The Obama administration did not stand out in this respect.
In 2011, during protests over the kingdom’s ban on women driving, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was publicly silent on the issue, in contrast to her championing of women’s rights elsewhere.
Only after criticism from Saudi women activists did Clinton offer support, when questioned on the subject during a press availability. Even as she did so, she emphasized that the reform calls were coming from inside the kingdom and not from the U.S.
Two years later Clinton’s successor John Kerry was similarly cautious when asked during a visit to Riyadh about women not having the right to drive.
“It’s no secret that in the United States of America we embrace equality for everybody, regardless of gender, race, or any other qualification,” he said in response to a reporter’s question.
“But it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events,” Kerry continued.
“There’s a healthy debate in Saudi Arabia about this issue, but I think that debate is best left to Saudi Arabia, the people engaged in it, all of whom know exactly where we in the United States of America stand on this issue.”
(Last June Saudi women were finally allowed legally to drive when the decades-old ban was lifted. Celebrations were tempered by the arrests of several women’s rights activists, and criticism from the Canadian government sparked a serious diplomatic rift.)
When Obama flew to Riyadh for talks with the late King Abdullah in 2014, Rhodes was asked en route what the president planned to say on human rights.
“The president, anywhere he goes in the world he raises our commitment to human rights, to universal values,” Rhodes told reporters. “So I think that will be an issue on the agenda with the Saudis. At the same time, we have a very broad set of shared security interests, economic interests that we’ll be pursuing as well.”
After the talks, a senior administration official briefing reporters said the two leaders two spoke for more than two hours, but human rights did not come up.
“They were able to have an over two-hour meeting, so they were fully able to cover a lot of ground,” the official said. “The king was very gracious for this hospitality.”
Asked specifically whether human rights had come up, the official replied, “No.”
The official said human rights were raised in the administration’s regular dialogue with the Saudis.
Ahead of that presidential visit, the Saudis refused to issue a visa to a Jewish reporter, and although the administration called the visa denial “unfortunate” it did not come up at the Obama-Abdullah meeting, according to the briefing official.
‘We’re close allies’
Despite Saudi Arabia’s rights record, it has had an almost permanent presence on the U.N. Human Rights Council since that body’s creation in 2006 (terms in 2006-2009, 2009-2012, 2014-2016 and 2017-2019.)
In 2015, the kingdom was selected to chair a HRC panel responsible for interviewing and shortlisting experts who investigate and report on human rights concerns around the world.
The decision drew outrage, but the Obama State Department took a different tack, with spokesman Mark Toner saying the administration “would welcome” the appointment, adding, “We’re close allies.”
Asked whether he thought it was “appropriate” for the Saudis to have such a leadership position Toner said the administration’s dialogue with Riyadh includes “human rights concerns” but asked whether the dialogue had brought about any improvement, Toner replied, “I don’t have anything to point to in terms of progress.”
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization that monitors the HRC, then urged Power, the ambassador to the U.N., to disavow “the absolute WORST comment in the history of the U.S. gov.”
But when asked about the appointment during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Power played down its significance, saying “it’s not going to have bearing on what the U.N. is doing on any particular human rights issue.”
Asked about Toner’s comment about welcoming the appointment, Power replied, “We welcome moves that are going to strengthen human rights. This is not going to have bearing on human rights one way or the other. Again, it’s a procedural position that won’t put a thumb on the scale one way or the other.”
When the Trump administration withdrew from the HRC last June, Power’s successor Nikki Haley, citing reasons for doing so, noted that “human rights abusers continue to serve on and be elected to the council.”