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U.S. allies, rivals move to crack down on foes and lock in gains in case Trump loses

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in 2018 .
(Leah Mills / Pool Photo)

Members of Saad Jabri’s family are missing.

The former Saudi intelligence officer, along with U.S. congressional lawmakers and human rights groups, say Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal dynasty is holding the Jabri relatives hostage to lure the family patriarch back to the desert kingdom from his self-imposed exile in Canada. Jabri is said to have incriminating information about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Critics call it the latest crackdown by the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who apparently feels empowered in part by a Trump administration that has shown little interest in condemning authoritarian regimes or advocating for human rights. Trump essentially whitewashed the crown prince’s involvement in the gruesome murder of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist two years ago.

Without the accountability that past U.S. governments have demanded, Prince Mohammed “is becoming more ruthless,” said Mohamed Soltan, head of a Washington-based human rights organization Freedom Initiative. “That wouldn’t have happened without the Trump administration.”

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With polls showing President Trump is trailing in November, some countries are beginning to view the coming few months as perhaps their last chance to make provocative moves, cement gains or crack down on rivals before a more traditional U.S. policy takes hold and prevents or condemns such steps.

From Hungary to Honduras, increasingly autocratic governments are using the coronavirus pandemic as cover to grab power and institute constitutionally questionable measures of control in the name of security, all without protest from the U.S. government, which has been distracted by its own COVID-19 crisis and criticism over its heavy-handed response to racial justice protests nationwide.

Several Latin American countries have learned that as long as they cooperate with Trump on his immigration policies, they can get away with self-enriching corruption, gutting of the courts and political repression — reversing years of U.S.-backed attempts at reform in the neighboring region.

And it’s probably no accident that leaders of China and Russia have made moves during the Trump administration to effectively lock themselves into power for life, with no protest from Trump.

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El Salvador’s millennial-aged President Nayib Bukele in recent weeks has ridden roughshod over the national Legislature and the Supreme Court to further his own standing, undermining institutions that U.S. taxpayers spent millions of dollars over the years to build up. He is confident a Trump-led government will not utter a word of criticism, analysts in San Salvador say.

“Authoritarianism pre-existed Trump, but in the last three years it has gotten much worse” and appears on the ascendancy, including in sensitive and strategically important parts of the Western Hemisphere, said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, who tracks numerous of the region’s countries at the Washington Office on Latin America.

In Honduras, source of a large share of people fleeing to the United States, President Juan Orlando Hernández, an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. drug-trafficking case against his brother, has enjoyed unwavering support from Trump. (The brother was found guilty; the president has denied wrongdoing.) Hernandez won a controversial reelection in late 2017, thanks largely to a hasty endorsement from the Trump administration, and is believed to be maneuvering to run again, a move considered illegal and unconstitutional in Honduras.

Israel has already benefited enormously from Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and unabashedly sided with Israel against Palestinians in peace talks. Until recently, it appeared Israel was planning to take advantage of that cozy relationship with Trump to embark on the ultimate power move: annexing parts of the occupied West Bank that Palestinians claim as their state.

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The idea of annexation, considered illegal under international law, has invited widespread global condemnation, including from inside Israel — but not from the Trump administration. A future President Biden would be unlikely to stand for such a provocative step.

Perhaps fearing such a move might complicate Trump’s reelection campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to back off for now.

But while annexation may be on ice until after the U.S. election, Israel may be finding other ways to take advantage of its close relationship to Trump. A series of mysterious explosions in Iran at nuclear-related facilities in recent weeks has raised speculation about whether Israel was responsible. Under President Obama, Israel often found itself restricted, particularly when it came to possible confrontations with Iran, which could inflame the region.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a rare Republican elected official willing to criticize Trump, says the administration’s policies have set a poor example for the rest of the world and weakened America’s traditional U.S. role as a global leader and unifier.

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“We’re saying, ‘America first. Everybody go off and do your own thing.... Pursue your own interests,’” Romney said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month. “And America looks like we don’t care about bringing the world together.”

Several Arab states with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, have lobbied the White House successfully in recent months to circumvent U.S. congressional opposition and push forward major acquisitions of U.S. weapons. A year ago, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo agreed to unfreeze the sale of $8 billion in weapons to Riyadh despite widespread opposition from Congress and human rights organizations.

And earlier this month, Trump ordered U.S. officials to ignore provisions of international arms-control agreements and proceed with the sale of large, armed Reaper drones to countries in the Middle East. (The restrictions were nonbinding but were negotiated and had been observed by 34 other world powers since 1987.)

“This reckless decision once again makes it more likely that we will export some of our most deadly weaponry to human rights abusers across the world,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said recently. “This is yet another reckless move by an administration fixated with eliminating the international cooperation that has made the United States and other countries safer for decades.”

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Some of America’s enemies may also be eyeing the next few months, hoping to lock in gains so they can negotiate with the next U.S. administration from a position of strength, several diplomats said.

“There is always the risk that America’s adversaries will believe that as the U.S. is absorbed in its own internal affairs, it won’t have the attention span to respond to their provocations,” said Daniel Shapiro, a retired veteran State Department and National Security Council official and now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. “They might want to expand their leverage.”

Iran, for example, has stepped up support for its proxies , positioning Hezbollah forces in Lebanon on its border with Israel, according to former Israel intelligence officials.

“We see much more presence of Hezbollah along the border” which has created fear of renewed military attacks, said Sarit Zehavi, a retired Israeli army lieutenant colonel who now works with a think tank along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.


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