Last week, Mike Pompeo came to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to release a yearlong State Department study on the U.S. approach to human rights.
You might think the secretary of state’s timing strange, as President Donald Trump mocks basic human rights principles at home and abroad.
But Pompeo told his audience, “The timing couldn’t be better.”
This is a moment in time when Americans should be having a national dialogue led by the White House on how to transform the “inalienable rights” enshrined in the Constitution into reality in race relations. It is also a time when the country needs to reexamine whether and how our leaders can promote human rights abroad.
But those vital debates aren’t happening. And that is not, as Pompeo charged at the National Constitution Center, because “too many leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles.” They aren’t happening because the president openly assaults the values Pompeo claims to be defending, and stokes racial hatred while blaming his critics for the chaos he creates.
It is still useful, however, to pay attention to the report of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, which casts light on the national dialogue we should be having.
The commission was originally tasked with re-examining the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. What emerged is a document Pompeo is shamelessly using to appeal to President Trump’s conservative religious base.
The secretary distinguishes between the “inalienable rights” promised in our founding documents — the report stresses property rights and religious liberty as the most essential — and “contrived rights” created by politicians. The implication is that the latter includes reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, which are undeserving of protection (especially when you need evangelical votes).
Equally egregious, the secretary uses the report to claim that “never before have America’s founding principles been under such relentless assault.” He denounces “outrageous efforts to erase American history by tearing down statues of our nation’s founders.”
In other words, a report on the nation’s founding principles is used as a vehicle to misrepresent the struggle to implement those principles with demonstrations that have been overwhelmingly peaceful. No mention of Trump’s sending military-clad federal agents uninvited into U.S. cities, in autocrat wannabe mode.
And when it comes to statues of our nation’s founders — in the few instances where they have been threatened — the Trump administration’s behavior makes it harder to defend them.
I believe that statues of the founders should be honored, not defaced, because those men embraced universal principles unique to the times they lived in, principles that we are still struggling to live up to. Trump could be making that argument in an effort to bring the country together. Instead, he and Pompeo choose to stir ugly divisions that undercut the very principles they claim to endorse.
And that fake Pompeo piety is equally egregious when it comes to promoting human rights abroad at a time when American leverage is waning. He uses the report to argue that Trump’s critics “have lost sight of the fundamental difference between autocracies … and liberal democracies.”
“That is the most appalling part of the report,” notes Michael Posner, the former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President Barack Obama. “Look at Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Hungary, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia,” Posner told me. Indeed, the list goes on and on of places where Trump has failed to raise human rights issues with autocratic leaders he favors, even as he critiques such violations in countries he dislikes, such as Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba.
Until recently, when attacks on China became a campaign necessity, Trump turned a blind eye to the mass concentration camps in which Beijing has interned millions of Muslim Uighurs. Only months ago, the president was praising the “great progress” made by China in Hong Kong. And, oh yes, Trump praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a man whose “country does love him,” with naught a word about the huge concentration camps in the country. And laughed with Vladimir Putin about the deaths of Russian journalists.
Apparently it is Trump who can’t tell the difference between liberal democracies and autocracies, nor can his secretary of state.
Yet, Pompeo’s sycophantic defense of his rights report is still useful, because it reminds us of the debates that will be necessary if the administration changes in November. The country will need to revisit the issue of how to restore human rights advocacy as a serious element of U.S. foreign policy, not one dependent on presidential whim.
Far from disqualifying America as a rights promoter, our internal struggles over race are a sign that most Americans care about the founding principles that Trump and Pompeo keep insulting.
“I think the civil rights struggle is an opportunity,” Posner told me. “We are an open society, and that hard debate over our failings makes the world recognize we take these things seriously.”
More seriously than the current administration’s pretend concern for values it dishonors every day.