The Moral Myopia of Trump’s Foreign Policy

by John Bryson Chane

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking May 4 at the State Department outlined a broad overview of President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. Since there has been concern about this new direction for America’s global engagement, Tillerson’s speech was both revealing and troubling.

“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals. It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests.” Tillerson said.

What price will Trump’s new foreign policy extract from the core values that have made America a great nation and a beacon of hope around the world for all who seek freedom from government oppression and the denigration of their humanity? What mixed message is communicated to oppressed people in countries that are identified as significant human rights violators and yet are countries that the Trump administration deems essential in supporting U.S. foreign policy and global self-interest? The secretary of state has implied that the U.S. will more than likely be forced to set aside its core values in order to ensure its own security and national interests.

Last Friday, before a gathering of predominantly Evangelical Christian leaders in the Rose Garden, President Trump announced his executive order to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, which prevents non-profit organizations, including religious ones, from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. During the presentation, he announced the itinerary of his first trip abroad in the cause of fighting “intolerance,” terrorism and Iran. “We will begin with a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world,” he said, “where we will construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence.”

Watching on television I wondered whether the president understood the impact of his wholehearted embrace of Saudi Arabia as America’s key ally in the Middle East, which betrayed none of the ambivalence that the Obama administration expressed about Riyadh. And how could Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, stand there in the Rose Garden and not care or know about Saudi Arabia’s glaring human rights violations?

Saudi Arabia outlaws Christianity as a public practice. There are no Christian churches in Saudi Arabia, and it is against the law to build them. The Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice actually prohibits the practice of any religion other than Islam. Freedom House, a US government- funded NGO, has designated Saudi Arabia as the “worst of the worst.” And lest anyone forget, 15 of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing over 3,000 people, were Wahhabi Sunnis from Saudi Arabia. I wonder if Secretary of State Tillerson understands that the Saudi Kingdom openly violates religious freedom, freedom of the press, and basic inalienable human rights, especially for women.

Perhaps the president doesn’t realize that there are other Muslims in the world beside Sunnis and that the Saudi’s have designated Shi’a Muslims as infidels. This by itself is a deal breaker if the president believes that an alliance brokered by Saudi Arabia and arrayed against the Shi’a, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Hamas will obliterate Iran and the P5+1 nuclear agreement that the Saudis, Israel, and Trump all decry.

As is the case for Christianity with its many different denominations and religious practices, so it is with Islam. Sunni Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative, inerrant interpretation of Islam, forms the warped core of the Islamic State, which teaches that those who do not conform to its religious interpretation of Islam should be killed, their daughters and wives violated, and their possessions confiscated. This Wahhabism has been spreading throughout the Middle East and destabilizing much of the region.

By making bad choices of allies, the United States hurts millions of people living in repressive states. Those people often see America as the oppressor that supports the corrupt governments that deny them their basic human rights and liberties. Too often this perception of America and the duality of our values helps the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in their recruitment efforts, their war efforts, and the terrorism they direct at the West.

By subverting the values Americans profess, the U.S. government inhibits the ability to work toward a more peaceable world. The moral myopia of American foreign policy defined by the slogan “America First” demonstrates to millions living in poverty, unemployment, humiliation, and persecution that the United States is willing to ignore them in order to advance “national security interests.” At best, this policy is shortsighted and uninformed. At worst, it is immoral and self-defeating.

The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, former episcopal bishop of Washington DC, is the senior advisor for interreligious dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

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