The Trump administration’s decision this week to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council was received with such little fanfare that it’s fair to ask, like the proverbial tree that falls in a forest with no one hearing, whether it really happened. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the move as a “courageous step” against the “hypocrisy” of the council, which in 12 years of existence has condemned Israel more often than the rest of the world combined, the rest of the international community reacted with a collective shrug. In most world capitals, America's move was seen as further proof of the Trump administration’s ongoing detachment from multilateral agreements and organizations, as well as yet another sign of its overall disdain for human rights issues.
After all, Trump has already announced his abandonment of UNESCO, the Paris Agreement on global warming and the Iran nuclear deal. He has ditched the Trans Pacific Partnership, is bent on changing the North America Free Trade Agreement and has hobbled, if not sabotaged, negotiations with Europe over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Trump trashes the European Union regularly, casts doubt over the viability of NATO and has recently started to unilaterally impose import tariffs, threatening to spark a global trade war. It's a small wonder Washington’s decision to snub the UNHRC, a prejudiced but largely toothless body, hardly resonated.
Israel chose to ignore the moderating influence the U.S. has had on UNHRC since former U.S. President Barack Obama decided to join the body in 2009. It described the new U.S. move as a moral blow against the blatant anti-Israel slant of the international body. Under Trump, however, the U.S. has lost its crown as a defender of decency and democracy. The U.S. president, after all, doesn’t hide his disdain for countries that cherish human rights, such as Canada and Germany, or his admiration for strongmen authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. A U.S. president who gushes about meeting a mass murderer such as Kim Jong Un, proudly hangs their joint photos on White House walls and praises the “great fervor” of North Koreans for their despotic leader cannot claim a bully pulpit from which to lecture the world on its bad behavior. For most of the world, the U.S. abandonment of the UNHRC was simply another manifestation of Trump’s “America First” policies and one-sided support for Israel.
When it comes to public relations, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley's announcement of the decision to withdraw from what she described as “a cesspool of political bias” came at the worst possible time. It was relegated to the back pages of newspapers and, given the circumstances, cast as a largely cynical move. After all, Haley and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heaped fire and brimstone on the UNHRC at the exact same time that protests against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their immigrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border reached fever pitch. The U.S. government stood accused of child abuse and wholesale violation of human rights, not by the 47 members of the UNHRC – which usually include countries notorious for their serial abuse of human rights – but by an overwhelming body of American public opinion, including senior members of the president’s own GOP and, however faintly, Trump’s own wife and daughter.
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The child separation saga is a direct outgrowth of Trump’s inflammatory incitement against illegal immigrants, which marked his election campaign from day one – whether it was directed at alleged rapists and drug dealers from Mexico or terrorists-in-waiting from Muslim countries. One of his first moves in office was the January 25 executive order for “zero tolerance” for illegal immigrants, including their criminal prosecution. Although experts largely dismissed Trump’s claims of rampant criminality among illegal immigrants and Obama’s own policies of mass deportations were criticized by Democrats and human rights groups, Trump was determined, in this as in many other areas – including the Iran nuclear deal – that he would be the anti-Obama. Whatever his predecessor could do, Trump could do tougher, and mainly meaner.
The separation policy, which went public a full seven months after its first implementation with an explosive April 20 New York Times exposé, was a ticking time bomb for the administration from its inception. The heart-wrenching photos of children forcibly taken from their parents, locked up in what seemed to everyone but the administration as cages, galvanized the media, then engrossed human rights activists and religious institutions, and finally ensnared the politicians themselves. Getty Images photographer John Moore’s picture of a crying Honduran girl went viral on social media before gracing front pages, including the New York Daily News, which attached the searing headline “Callous. Soulless. Craven. Trump.” The subsequent Pro Publica recording of wailing children being held by Customs and Border Police in Texas overwhelmed even the coldest of hearts. The waves of protest turned into a tsunami.
The distraught and eternally self-contradicting reactions of Trump and his disciples poured even more fuel on the fire. The separation of children was, concurrently, non-existent, exaggerated, necessary, meant to deter, a continuation of Obama policies and/or mandated by law. Trump said his hands were tied and that Congress was the address while simultaneously indicating that the separated children were being held hostage in order to force Democrats to fund his wall on America’s southern border. He finally and at least seemingly caved on Wednesday night, signing an executive order that replaced family separations with indefinite lock-up. Tellingly, Trump ensured that the boil would continue to fester by leaving the fate of the 2,342 children already being held unresolved.
The successful protests proved the prowess of the free media, which continues to thrive despite – and perhaps because of – Trump’s incessant attacks. It showed that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, for the time being at least, even for otherwise pro-Trump groups, such as the Jewish Orthodox Union. It fed off the intensely emotional opposition to Trump among liberals and other groups, but also highlighted the rhetorical slippery slope of the resistance, which led many to preposterous comparisons between Trump's policies and those of the Nazis.
But the separation also showed just how far Trump’s enablers and apologists are willing to go to defend their leader, and just how low they are willing to sink to justify his impulses and whims. Leading the list of ignobles was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who cited scripture to justify the inhumane separation, and Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – recently received warmly in Jerusalem by Netanyahu, who tripped all over herself on an hourly base. But most of all by that Pravda on the Hudson known as Fox News; Laura Ingraham, who compared the children’s holding pens to summer camps; Ann Coulter, who said they were professional actors and prime time star Tucker Carlson, who cited the protests as proof that Trump’s detractors loved illegal immigrants more than their own people.
Trump’s abrupt reversal, motivated mainly by unanimous cries of SOS from GOP legislators who fear electoral backlash come the November 6 Congressional elections, was widely portrayed as an embarrassing slap in the face, but news of his imminent fall from grace may be premature. The U.S. economy is still showing signs of greater than anticipated strength. His approval ratings are creeping upwards, and Republicans continue to overwhelmingly support their leader. And although polls show that a solid two-third majority of the American public opposed child separation, Republicans backed it by a 55-percent-to-35-percent majority.
Trump may catch some flak from his never-surrender right-wing flank for succumbing to liberal scum, but his base will largely forgive him. He tried his best, they’ll reason. As he told a mass rally in Minnesota hours after rescinding the child separation policy, it’s all the fault of the media, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, as well as – and this will sound very familiar to anyone who follows Netanyahu – those evil “elites.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s internal strength stands in inverse proportion to his standing in international public opinion, which took another strong hit as a result of the child separation scandal. Western leaders, smarting from Trump's disparaging attitude, openly condemned Trump’s policies and described them as a violation of human rights and their own moral values. An exception, of course, was Netanyahu’s Israel, which wouldn’t dream of attacking a president who has religiously refrained from criticizing its own policies. In this regard, and in this context, the U.S. withdrawal from the UNHRC wasn’t so much a diplomatic achievement for Jerusalem as it was an act of mutual self-incrimination. For most of the world, which detests Trump, it was a case of “tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”