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U.S. Leadership On Human Rights May Be Over, Former Diplomat Says


Egypt's president, Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the country's democratically elected president three years ago and then took power in a military coup. Since then, he has essentially been banned by the United States, shunned by the Obama administration. That ended yesterday when President Trump welcomed el-Sisi to the White House. As the two leaders sat together in the Oval Office, President Trump made his feelings clear.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.

MARTIN: Those comments drew fire from critics including Tom Malinowski. He was assistant secretary of state for democracy human rights and labor under President Obama. And he joins us now via Skype. Mr. Malinowski, thanks for being with us.


MARTIN: Is it surprising that a new American president would try to forge his own relationship with this important U.S. ally?

MALINOWSKI: It's not surprising that he would try to forge a relationship. We've done that before, but, you know, I was struck by the warmth with which President Trump greeted the military dictator of Egypt in comparison to how cold he was with, for example, Angela Merkel, the democratically elected leader of a country that has been such a close ally of the United States for so many years.

He - this is a very radical departure in both substance and tone from the approach that, not just President Obama has taken, but really all of our presidents since World War II have taken, presidents who have believed that America's ability to inspire others by standing up for larger principles in the world is really one of our great advantages in the world. I worry that we're squandering.

MARTIN: So el-Sisi, as we mentioned, has had his fair share of critics who condemn his rights on his record - on human rights in Egypt. But, you know, the Obama administration although outwardly critical of el-Sisi still gave Egypt billions of dollars in military aid.

MALINOWSKI: Actually when el-Sisi staged his coup to take power in Egypt, the Obama administration suspended all military aid. Over time, some of that was restored, but today over a $150 million of that aid remains suspended because we have been concerned about the really serious abuses of human rights in Egypt.

So that's a decision that President Trump is going to have to make. Are we still going to connect our treatment of countries like Egypt in decisions on military aid and police training and other things to their domestic conduct? We have...

MARTIN: And you're seeing indications that they do not intend to do that?

MALINOWSKI: I think President Trump has consistently told us two things that are quite unprecedented with respect to both Republican and Democratic presidents. Number one, he doesn't seem to have much interest in the United States being a force for good in the world. He said we're going to be America first. It's going to be about making deals with whoever's willing to make deals with us for the sake of our own economy and our own internal security.

And, number two, most remarkable of all, he has said again and again that America doesn't really have the moral right to talk to anybody about values, that our own elections are rigged, our own press is the enemy of the people. When he's been confronted by allegations, for example, that President Putin murders journalists he famously said, well, America kills people, too. When I traveled around the world as an American diplomat confronting some of these regimes that was their argument back to me. They never denied that they arrested dissidents and persecuted journalists. They always said, well, you Americans are no better than anybody else. And now we have a president who amazingly is saying the same thing.

MARTIN: Well, as you know, there's a public and a private face to diplomacy. And what a leader says publicly could be different than what he or she may be trying to work at the edges privately in a relationship with a different country. So who's to say - are you convinced that the Trump administration isn't trying to pull those levers and isn't trying to push a human rights agenda, perhaps, behind closed doors?

MALINOWSKI: We'll have to see, and I hope that they are. But, generally, in my experience, the public message in some way reinforces the private message. It doesn't contradict it, and when you say publicly we're not going to raise human rights and we are 100 percent behind a military dictator like el-Sisi, it's kind of hard to say that publicly and then go into the private meeting and hit hard on an issue like political prisoners being tortured - or in the case of Egypt really important issue.

Even if all you think we should stand up for is America first is that this is a government that is unjustly imprisoning a number of American citizens. And I sure hope that at the very least in that private meeting President Trump had asked President Sisi to release those Americans.

MARTIN: Tom Malinowski served as assistant secretary of state for democracy human rights and labor at the State Department. Thanks so much.

MALINOWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.