INTERVIEW: The Man Who Argued With Dictators
Originally published on June 19, 2017, Author: Susan B. Glasser
Tom Malinowski spent years trying to get President Obama to care more about human rights. Now, he’s figuring out what to do with a president who doesn’t seem to care at all.
Whatever you think about President Donald Trump, his speech Friday announcing the rollback of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba and castigating the Castro government for its human rights abuses, must surely rate as one of the most head-snapping of his young presidency.
There he was lecturing the Cubans on “imprisoning innocents,” on harboring bad guys, supporting “forced labor” and general “exploitation all around the globe.” For any of America’s past few decades, this might have passed for standard-issue rhetoric.
But this is Trump, the same guy who has spent the first few months of his presidency praising dictators from China’s Xi Jinping (“a good man, a very good man”) and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (“a very smart cookie”) to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi (“he’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”) and Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who received a fanfare-laden White House reception. And then, of course, there’s his famous affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose “strength,” toughness, leadership — and praise for Trump — have all come in for favorable notice.
The message to the world’s autocrats and dictators, strongmen and would-be tough guys couldn’t have been more clear.
So what to make of the Cuba speech, coming after all that
“It just confirms one of the favorite arguments of America’s critics: that our advocacy for freedom and democracy is just a weapon we use to beat up our enemies, not a principled policy we apply to everyone,” says Tom Malinowski, this week’s guest on The Global Politico. Malinowski spent the past few years pushing Obama from the inside on human rights as his assistant secretary of state; a former Washington director of Human Rights Watch, he is now leading the resistance from the outside to Trump and what he calls his “obscene” fondness for the world’s tyrants.
Not so long ago, Malinowski was caught up in the Obama administration’s agonized internal debates. What to do about Syria and a civil war threatening millions of innocent civilians? How much do press allies like Turkey and Egypt amid internal crackdowns arresting thousands? What about Russia, and the ritualistic American complaints about the rollback of democratic freedoms that infuriated an increasingly aggressive Putin?
As the top-ranking U.S. government official with human rights in his job title, he was often on the losing side, nudging a Democratic president who talked in sweeping terms of global freedoms but, in practice, became progressively more reluctant to act as their guarantor. “Everybody was frustrated with where we were on Syria at the end of eight years of the Obama administration,” Malinowski acknowledges.
But that was then.
Now, in the Trump presidency, it all seems rather beside the point, Malinowski argues in our extensive interview, which covered everything from those internal Obama battles and the nitty-gritty of what it’s like to spend a career “arguing with dictators” to his last-ditch effort to stop Trump from overturning sanctions on Russia in the days immediately after his inauguration. Trump, he says, isn’t just making the sort of normal course correction that occurs when the White House changes hands. He’s making “a complete departure from decades of American tradition.”
Glasser: Welcome back. I’m Susan Glasser and this is the Global POLITICO, and this is going to be a great episode, I think, of the Global POLITICO because my guest this week is Tom Malinowski, who is already making me laugh — and we haven’t even started talking. So that bodes well. Tom most recently was the assistant secretary of state for Human Rights and that gives him a pretty unique perspective on the abrupt and even rapid switch in foreign policy that we’re seeing between the Obama administration, in which Tom serviced since 2014, and the Trump administration.
So I’m just going to jump right in. You wrote a piece recently in The Atlantic, which was really powerful explaining a little bit about the work that you do, and you talked about how presidents — when they leave in their farewell addresses — tend to sum up, and really to summon the values that are at the heart of American foreign policy. President Obama, in fact, said in his goodbye address that “America’s rivals will never match our influence unless we give up what we stand for.” And that seemed to me like already President Obama was anticipating this switch in foreign policy, anticipating a world in which Donald Trump would make his very first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, to a country that doesn’t even allow women to drive.
That it’s not that you and others in the Obama administration didn’t see pretty clearly what was going to happen, but trying to understand now what are the consequences of that? Has America gotten out of the human rights and values business?
Malinowski: Our president has, unfortunately. I don’t think America has. I think that the United States of America has for a very long time had an idea of itself as a country that stands for something larger in the world than just our immediate self-enrichment or self-protection. That idea has inspired us in our moments of crisis from World War II to the Cold War. I think it has inspired people all over the world and sometimes, persuaded them to tolerate a bit more power from the United States than they might tolerate from other great powers [laughs] because we’ve managed to convince them more often than not that America uses that power for the common good, for the betterment of the world.
When we have not lived up to that ideal; when we have screwed up, as we have many, many times, the one thing that brings us back is the sense that we are supposed to do better. So, we judge ourselves in accordance with this very high standard. And all of our presidents really since Jimmy Carter at least have explicitly made the promotion of human rights and freedoms and democracy part of our foreign policy. We’ve always debated how to do it, and I’ve served under two presidents: President Clinton and President Obama, and we had all kinds of arguments. How do we do it in Saudi Arabia? Should we intervene in countries like Syria or Bosnia or Libya when people are in trouble? How do we deal with countries that are partners on terrorism or security but also abuse their people?
And we have these arguments about the means, but we’ve always agreed on the ends. Every president has believed that America is better off if people around the world have greater freedoms, and that is the radical shift that we’re experiencing now.
Glasser: Well, it’s interpreting that you make this point; that we’re now at a point where arguably the Trump administration or at least the president himself. Maybe not everybody in it. Obviously, there are some people, like U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who are pursuing their own more traditional version of American foreign policy at the moment, and we can talk about that. So you’re making this argument basically that that’s the disjuncture of President Trump?
I’ve talked to a lot of people, as I’m sure you have around Washington, though, who think there is more continuity than people would like to acknowledge between President Obama and President Trump when it comes to this issue of imposing sort of an American vision of the world onto other countries. President Obama obviously had a different demeanor, but he, too, shared some attributes with President Trump [such as his] weariness about projecting values at the heart of our foreign policy. He was kind of a Democratic version of a realist.
Malinowski: I don’t agree with that. I think there has always been a wariness in American foreign policy to varying degrees of imposing, interfering, getting ourselves embroiled in complicated foreign situations. Sometimes we do it. Sometimes we hold back. But it’s all a debate about the means. President Obama embraced the Arab Spring. He spoke out in favor of dissidents in Egypt and Bahrain and Libya. He intervened militarily in Libya to support the revolution there. His initial speech in the region—at the famous speech in Cairo ...
Glasser: The Cairo speech.
Malinowski: ... was all about the potential for political transformation and how that’s the key to fighting terrorism and extremism. And then in his farewell address, like that of every president since forever was, as you mentioned, a tribute to this quality of American leadership around the world. Now, some people criticized us in the Obama administration for not doing more in some places. Some people felt we did too much. But President Obama, like President Bush, like President Reagan, like President Clinton, believed that we would be better off if people in Saudi Arabia had the right to choose their leaders, if women had the right to drive. If folks in countries that are beset by extremism had peaceful ways of expressing their grievances. And what’s very, very different—it’s not there’s a different tone or a different way of doing things in this administration; it’s that President Trump has explicitly said that he is just not interested in advancing this aim and by his words and actions.
And almost more important, his body language: You can just tell that he has a clear preference for, admiration for strong men and dictators. My goodness, he even has explicitly praised the president of the Philippines campaign of murdering drug users and drug dealers in the thousands. This is, I have to say, just obscene and a complete departure from decades of American tradition.
Glasser: It’s hard to imagine who would be a successor to you as an assistant secretary in charge of Human Rights in the Trump administration. We can talk a little bit more later on what’s going on inside the State Department since you’ve left. But I want to keep on this Obama thing. Take us behind the curtain a little bit. You pointed out, obviously, there were many debates. One of the things that was striking was President Obama’s own evolution. He is famous for this stirring rhetoric. He gives this Cairo speech. He’s given many speeches that invoked the grandiose nature of American commitment to the world and its transformational view really of why what happens inside other countries matters to them and to the rest of us. And yet, dot, dot, dot.
And yet, the Syria Civil War unfolded on his watch. Six years, hundreds of thousands dead. Millions of refugees. This is surely going to be a blot on President Obama’s record. He had the ability to do many things he chose in the end not to do. It was a series of circular and for you, I’m sure, very painful debates. You were supportive at various points in time of doing more. Give us a little bit of a window into what this abstract human rights debate looks like in practice. I mean, your job was to be the guy at the table standing up for those principles and yet, again and again, that collides with a lot of other competing realities for a president forced to make those decisions.
Malinowski: It’s complicated, in one word, our experience in Syria — and I’m really proud of having worked for President Obama. I think he championed freedom around the world. He championed our interests around the world. He demonstrated extraordinary integrity in doing so. In seriousness, obviously, two smart people agree on everything, one of them isn’t thinking— that’s the old cliché. And Syria is a place where I wish we had done more. And I think our experience in Syria is probably the most powerful recent argument for America caring about human rights in other countries. Because this was a small, a relatively unimportant country thousands and thousands of miles away. And one day, a bunch of teenagers; 14-, 15-year-old boys, spray some graffiti on a wall and they get picked up by the police and they get tortured and then the people of their town get pissed off and start demonstrating and then more people get arrested and then more people get angry.
And before we know it, we have a revolution against a brutal dictator that ultimately results in millions of refugees walking to Europe, upending the politics of our closest allies, sparking in part this wave of right-wing populism that we’re all struggling with right now. And, on top of that, the formation of ISIS, a terrorist movement that is worse than Al Qaeda. And all because of a dysfunctional relationship between a dictator and his people in a small country thousands of miles away.
So, however, folks think we should have dealt with that, and that’s a really, really tough question — I think it is probably the most powerful proof that I can present that these issues should matter to the United States.
Glasser: But you’re in this job now. You were not in this position at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, but obviously, you came into the role much earlier in the game when there were more options available to the president and you and I talked throughout this period of time, including before you got the job. And you were very engaged with what are options that are real, that are concrete. How do I get support on Capitol Hill for taking various actions that might influence President Obama from your previous life as the Washington director of the Human Rights Watch, here.
You understood the different tools and levers available to lobby the president. You worked those. Your colleague, Samantha Power, obviously, pressed and pressed such that President Obama was reported to have essentially given up and rolled his eyes at her. What was it like? Why did President Obama, a man who, as you said, shares these values that you have? Why didn’t he do more when we could have? Tell us what it was like when you were sitting at the table?
Malinowski: First of all, the debate about Syria was ultimately a debate about the hardest thing that a president has to do, and that is to make decisions about war and peace. Most of our — 99 percent of our debates about human rights policy and foreign policy don’t involve that kind of choice, and I think anybody who has not been the president needs to give some deference to the extraordinary burden that a preident who is command-in-chief and can send our men and women into battle has to bear. I can’t speak for President Obama. I have, of course, listened to him many, many times, and I think his primary concern was rooted in our experience in Iraq. Rooted in a sense that we Americans sometimes have too much confidence in our ability to solve complicated problems in that part of the world, and sometimes we go in for the right reasons and we find ourselves stuck.
And we find ourselves — I think he would argue, creating more problems than solving. And so, he asked a lot of, I think, legitimate questions. If we impose a no-fly zone. If we take the steps that some of us were recommending. What is the likely first, second, and third order effects?
Glasser: Was there a moment in time that you can look back on now and say, 'Wow, if only that particular meeting had gone differently?'
Malinowski: I don’t think there was, and I wasn’t in meetings in the Oval Office at which ultimately these decisions were made. I think President Obama was simply never convinced that we could intervene against the Assad regime in a way that would resolve this situation without getting the United States of America stuck in another Middle Eastern conflict. Now, the irony is that we are now stuck in a difficult Middle Eastern conflict in Syria with not only daily airstrikes, but troops on the ground engaged in combat, which is far, far more than any proponent of humanitarian intervention Syria was proposing early on, and in my personal view, could have been avoided had we done a little bit more at an early point to stop that carnage. I cannot prove that I’m right.
And the problem we are facing is the one that we must face today.
Glasser: I’ve been particularly amazed at just how viscerally people in the region seem to take President Obama’s views. There’s nowhere in the world where the leaders have been so pro-Trump as in the Middle East and you go around —you and I have both had this experience of talking with people in the region and there was just an absolute disregard for President Obama after eight years of this sort of grueling, trying to nudge things in a better direction at a time of arguably real unraveling in the Middle East. What do you attribute that to? Obviously, Europe has a very different point of view about Donald Trump but across the region — and this includes Israel as well as many of the Gulf States. There was a real disappointment in President Obama that was pretty palpable. Why do you think that is? Is it because he had pesky folks like you lecturing them about human rights?
Malinowski: Well, it depends a lot on who you talk to. Eight years is a long time and the conflict in Syria, I think, took its toll on everybody. And it should have because it created so much harm, not just to the region but to the whole world, and everybody was frustrated with where we were on Syria at the end of the eight years of the Obama administration. But let’s also be a little bit honest. The fundamental dispute that, for example, Saudi Arabia had with the Obama administration is that President Obama embraced the Arab Spring.
And Saudi Arabia’s most important priority in the last several years has not been to fight terrorism. It has not been to help the people of Syria. It has not even been to counter Iran.
It has been to push back these forces of rapid liberalization that the Arab Spring represented. And they never forgave us for the very simple statements that President Obama made in support of the Tahrir Square Revolution in Egypt. And by the same token, I think there are autocrats in the Middle East who see in the Trump administration a reflection of themselves. They see a president who mixes business and politics. A president who employs his family. A president who does not concern himself with values of democracy and freedom and rule of law.
A president whose former national security adviser could be put on one’s payroll and I think there was a temporary moment in which a lot of autocratic leaders around the world breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of such an American administration. I also think that, as time goes by, they may get a little bit of buyer’s remorse.
Glasser: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about that transition after this shocking election upset and it became clear to all of the tough customers in your human rights portfolio at the State Department that there was not going to be the Hillary Clinton administration that they had expected, but there was going to be a Donald Trumpadministration. You’ve recounted one incident with a Central Asian diplomat basically chortling at this. You and your staff must have actually gotten a lot of pushback from people saying, 'Hey, there’s going to be a new sheriff in town. Your finger wagging days are over.'
Malinowski: Yeah, we knew the day after election day that there was really not much more that we could do and that was very, very sad and we heard about it from some of our interlocutors around the world. So you mentioned an ambassador from Central Asia who came by and saw one of my deputies and said, “Gosh, you guys must feel so stupid. All you’ve been doing is talking democracy this and democracy that and free elections here and there, and now your own president-elect says that America’s election was rigged and that 3 million people voted illegally. Gosh, you must feel so stupid.'
And so, I heard about this and I was a little bit pissed off. So I asked the guy to come and see me. And I said, 'I heard about what you said to my deputy. And I get where you’re coming from. I know, given what Trump is saying, we’re probably not going to be able to have some of the conversations with you guys that we had before about democracy. But I also want to ask you: How are you feeling?' Because again, this is a Central Asian country, and I said, 'You do realize that your country is not very important and that there’s a lot of things that you like about' ...
Glasser: [Laughs] What talking from a diplomat.
Malinowski: Well, at this point, who cares?
Glasser: Game over, yeah.
Malinowski: 'You come from a small, relatively unimportant country, and you rely on the United States to back you up against your big neighbors, Russia and China. You do realize that the only reason we do that is because we have these principles. It’s not because you really matter. And so, if America is going to have a transactional foreign policy where we align ourselves with big countries that can do stuff for us, you’re probably going to be out of luck. How does that make you feel?'
And he admitted that he was very, very nervous and then we had a much more honest conversation about the future. And Israel — my goodness. President Obama, I think, was pretty darn good to Israel in terms of aid and arms sales and backing them up at the U.N. — and in all kinds of other ways. But at the end of the day, Israel needs a United States of America that has authority in the world. If our relationship with our core European allies is shredded, that is not good for Israel. We’re not going to be able to defend Israel if we are alone in the world. America First is not a great recipe for an effective partnership with Israel and protecting it against all of the threats that it faces. And virtually every country in the world, including the autocracies needs something from America that we give because we have a good heart, not just because we are self-interested. And I think — it’s only been a few weeks and already some of the buyer’s remorse may be setting in.
Glasser: Well, what I’m struck by is that, of course, these tensions always existed in American foreign policy and even in a democratic administration like the one you served in, it’s not easy to balance those things. I’m thinking of your own experience in Bahrain. Maybe we should talk about that when you were assistant secretary. Of course, that’s a place that is very important to the Pentagon. It’s very important to our strategic position in the Persian Gulf. The American 5th Fleet is headquartered there and what happened when you came to town and tried to meet with people they didn’t want you to meet with.
Malinowski: Nothing. What are you talking about? [Laughs] Our relationship with Bahrain is strong and solid and there’s no problem.
Glasser: Tom, you’re not the assistant secretary.
Malinowski: Oh, sorry. You’re right..
Glasser: Put your other hat on, please.
Malinowski: Well, there was that minor incident in which I was kicked out the country. I do recall now. Thank you for reminding me. So, yeah, Bahrain is an interesting case. It’s important to us because we have a military base there, a very important strategic relationship. But it’s also a country that is roughly evenly divided between Shia and Sunni. Actually, more Shia than Sunni — but it is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and naturally, the Shia majority would like to have more representation in the government.
We felt very, very strongly that it would be good for Bahrain and good for the Middle East as a whole for this country to live up to its stated commitment to political inclusion. To show this divide between Sunni and Shia can be overcome through democracy rather than something that can only be managed by one side dominating the other side. And so, we felt we had both security interests in a partnership with Bahrain but also security interests in nudging them toward greater democracy.
I went, interestingly, at their invitation, to go talk to them about this stuff and it was Ramadan and during Ramadan in Bahrain, there’s a tradition of the Majlis where people, families, organizations, have receptions in their homes and you go and you pay your respects in the evening. And I started my trip by going to the Ramadan reception, the Majlis, of the main moderate Shia opposition party, Al-Wefaq, at which I had a conversation with the opposition leader, primarily about soccer and the World Cup, and we were laughing about that and pictures were snapped.
It showed up on social media and hard-liners in the Bahraini government flipped out, accusing me of meeting with the opposition before I met with the government, and I was PNGed by Twitter. PNG means “persona non-grata.”
Glasser: When that happens to a diplomat, it’s a big deal.
Malinowski: It’s a big deal. I think I am the first and probably still the only diplomat in the history of the world to have been PNGed by Twitter. It’s a great honor. I’m very proud. Thank you, Bahrain.
Glasser: But now we live in the Trump era, so more Twitter PNGing is entirely possible.
Malinowski: It’s entirely possible my record might be broken. But it was interesting. There was a little diplomatic crisis over this, as you can imagine. Our government didn’t take kindly to that sort of treatment of a senior U.S. diplomat. A few months later, I went back and had a really good and warm conversation with the king of Bahrain and the crown prince and the whole government. I met the opposition again. We tried really, really hard to encourage a deal in which the opposition could run in freer elections in that country. Sadly, it failed.
And here’s what I think was interesting about this: There were a lot of people who were skeptical about what we were trying to do in Bahrain. Some of them felt that we really didn’t have enough influence to really effectively promote democratic change in a country that was so arguably set in its autocratic ways. Other people argued, 'Well, we had influence but we just weren’t using enough of it. We weren’t trying hard enough.' Because it didn’t seem like we were succeeding. Things remained bad. Now, Trump goes to Saudi Arabia. He meets with the king of Bahrain and instead of gently nudging him to respect human rights, he explicitly tells the king, 'We are not going to have this problem with you anymore. This is no longer an issue between us.'
And within a few days, the government or Bahrain launches a much more violent and brutal and complete crackdown on dissent, free press, political opposition. And what that shows, to me, is that sometimes the measure of our success, when we promote these values overseas, is not a gloriously free and fair election, a glorious transformation to freedom and democracy, though sometimes that happens. Sometimes all we can do is just maintain a little bit of deterrence to keep the subject of human rights on the minds of the rulers in that country so that they feel like there are still some norms they can’t break. There are still some lines that they can’t cross.
Glasser: So your role in the Obama administration was really — it was sort of like a journalist. I’m thinking of that scene in Broadcast News where the pesky kid gets beaten up by all of the other kids. That’s usually the role of the journalist. But basically, the human rights guy at the table is kind of like that too. So when you don’t have that guy around ...
Malinowski: Well, it’s not so much that human rights are cut when this is absent from our foreign policy. Things get a lot worse in the world. I think one of the ...
Glasser: Just to push back on that a little bit, when you were in this role did you feel like that they thought, 'Oh, here they go again. This is the price of doing business with the Americans that I have to have these people like Tom come and lecture me about the' ...
Malinowski: Sometimes, but that’s because I had the backing of the president and the secretary of state and the country and the Congress.
Glasser: That’s what I’m saying. That was the price of doing business with America was to listen to people like you.
Malinowski: But they were sensitive to what we had to say in most of these countries. There were a couple of places where I just felt like it’s not worth going because all it would be is meeting with a bored official who just wants to get off ...
Glasser: Check a box?
Malinowski: Check a box. But I can’t tell you how many times I’d go to an autocratic country and have intense conversations, debates with presidents, the head of the secret police, the interior minister; conversations that would go on for hours in which they were striving with all of their might to try to justify themselves or to try to convince me that what they were doing was either different from what I thought or the right thing to do. And what that taught me — and I think this is a really important insight. Is that dictators are a lot more insecure about their legitimacy than elected leaders.
You get elected president of the United States or France, you don’t have to be insecure about your legitimacy because it comes ...
Glasser: Well, we have one right now who is insecure, Tom, but ...
Malinowski: Well, that’s a unique circumstance but if you got elected fair and square, then you have a right to rule for your term. But most dictators know darn well that they’re not legitimate so they desperately want our approval and they desperately want to avoid our disapproval. I was lobbied so many times by governments around the world to not issue public statements about their human rights record.
They would send diplomats and say, 'Oh, Tom, I know you guys have these concerns but don’t say anything publicly because it would be really counterproductive.' And every time they did that, it convinced me that we probably should issue that public statement because for whatever reason, they are really insecure about being called out. And when that stops — and this is, I think, maybe the silver lining in the current circumstances: that we are, for the next couple of years, going to be running a controlled experiment in what it means for the United States to be absent as a moral leader around the world.
The bad news is a lot of people are going to be harmed because of this. The good news, I hope, at the end of it is that we will see as clearly as we have never seen before the value of America playing that role because we will see the consequences of our absence. And if that’s what we have to go through to understand clearly the value of America playing a principled role on the world stage and working with our allies to advance these values, then perhaps something good can come of this.
Glasser: I always did think you had to be a pretty big optimist to take this kind of role and to take up human rights as your profession. Just quickly, because there’s so much I want to ask you about what’s happening right now. But why did you pick up human rights as your profession? It’s an unusual career to make. There are a lot of people who talk about it but very few who actually spend their lives doing it. How did you come to this?
Malinowski: Well, I think it’s fun having arguments with dictators [laughs]. Very few get to do it as often as I have.
Glasser: Well, and which dictator were you most interested to meet, by the way?
Malinowski: Well, that’s a good question. I never got to spar with Putin. That would have been fun.
Glasser: I’ve met Putin.
Malinowski: Well, you can tell me about that. But it’s not ...
Glasser: I asked him about Chechnya, by the way. I was the skunk at the garden party in his first interview with Western reporters. And I was one of the most junior ones. This was in the spring of 2001. So they had gotten almost two-thirds of the way around the table before the question got to me, and no one had asked him about Chechnya and human rights, so I felt that I had to.
Malinowski: Yeah, well, often, it’s not the leader of the country that’s most interesting. It could be the head of the police or even the head of the secret police and as you know from your Russian experience, often the smartest people in these countries are given the domestic internal security function. And it’s interesting to me how folks like that often want to talk about what they do. I had a fascinating three-hour meeting with the head of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police once before I was at the State Department. And we went at it on imprisoning dissidents, on torture and whether it was effective or not and he was as fascinated to meet me as I was fascinated to meet him.
And do you ever convince somebody in a meeting like that? Of course not.
But I always wanted to use those meetings to get it into the heads of these people that they are being watched, that somebody in the world who has power knows what they are doing, and that there may be at some point, as a consequence of those facts, consequences for that person if they cross a certain line. And again, taking that away, it’s a radical change.
Malinowski: So I look back on being a diplomat and I think about all of the amazing, interesting conversations with leaders around the world and officials and how fascinating the issues were. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of the silly moments and how sometimes the dominant feeling you have is just being exhausted and you’re going from meeting to meeting to meeting in a foreign country or perhaps doing what we used to call “diplomatic speed dating” at the U.N., where you have 10 meetings a day with different countries for seven or eight days straight.
Glasser: This is every September when the U.N. General Assembly meets.
Malinowski: That’s right, and I’m embarrassed to say that I probably had a lot of meetings with government ministers from other countries where I just didn’t even know the name of the person I was meeting with — and it was on my briefing paper, but you forget. And a funny version of this happened at the U.N. when I was scheduled to meet — it was on my schedule — with the president of Burkina Faso, President Compaoré, the now former leader of that country, and he’d been in power for decades and was trying to extend his stay by another term, contrary to his constitution. And back in that time, we had a policy of encouraging leaders all over the world to respect their constitutions; to leave when their term limits were up.
And so I show up at his suite outside his door, and I see this gentleman walking down the hall toward us, and he sees me and he greets me, and says, 'Oh, are you here to see me?' And I said, 'Yes.' And I looked at him and I had once briefly met President Compaoré of Burkina Faso and this did not look like President Compaoré of Burkina Faso, but I wasn’t sure. So he led me into the suite and we sat down and we started this bilateral meeting. And I’m still not sure who this man is and it is important to know because usually, you’re talking about policy. 'Your government should pull its troops out of here or your government should release that political prisoner.'
But here, I’m talking about you, Mr. President, should leave office and so the personal pronoun becomes very important! And I’m struggling for about five minutes, and then I notice to my relief, that he’s wearing a small U.N. nametag, and I strained my eyes to look at it without appearing to strain my eyes to look at it and I noticed that it’s the foreign minister of Burkina Faso and not the president. And I managed to adjust quickly enough to say that "he" should leave office rather than "you, Sir."
Glasser: Did the president even show up?
Malinowski: No, he never did.
Glasser: And did he leave office?
Malinowski: He was made to leave office by his people. Had he listened to us, he would be in a much better shape right now.
Glasser: Right, he was in a spate of coups, as I remember what happened a few years ago.
Malinowski: And I thought to myself, You know, we are sometimes arrogant as Americans. I wonder if any visiting diplomat ever comes to Washington and sits down with our secretary of state and he’s wondering to himself, 'Is this Kerry? Or is this Obama? Is this Obama? Who is this?'
Glasser: Is this Biden [laughter]?
Glasser: But you started this because you had a fascination with dictators and with autocratic societies.
Malinowski: No, no, no. I skipped to something that was fun about it. I am interested in political change in autocratic societies. I was born in Poland when it was a Communist country. I was very inspired watching it as a kid in the Solidarity Revolution move toward democracy. I’ve seen in my own experience the role that America plays in people’s imaginations around the world, and so it gives me a lot of pride now. Especially as an immigrant to America to now ...
Glasser: And you came here when?
Malinowski: I was 6 years old, and I do have that kind of immigrants' — the simple love of this country. And the idea that I could get on a plane and speak to a foreign leader with all of the might and majesty of the United States of America behind me, as a representative of our president, on behalf of our values. That makes me feel —it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever had a chance to do. And you’ve asked some questions that suggest that this is a frustrating line of work to be in and actually, I don’t see it that way. I think foreign policy, in general, is frustrating. Most of what we try to do that’s interesting in the world, whether it’s on human rights or countering proliferation or terrorism. Most of the stuff fails most of the time. I always said to my team at the State Department that it’s kind of like baseball and if you’re successful 30 percent of the time, you’re going to the hall of fame because that’s a .300 average.
I also used to tell the folks in the Human Rights Bureau, which is what I ran — that 'you guys work for the part of the State Department that loses the most battles of any other part of the State Department.' And I pause and let that sink in and then I’d say, 'You also work for the part of the State Department that wins the most battles of any other part of the organization. Now, how can that be? Because you pick the most battles of anyone. You’re working on these really hard issues that inherently involve friction between us and those in the diplomatic apparatus who are mostly focused on maintaining relations with other states.'
And inherently, it causes friction between the United States and those other states. And so it’s hard and you have to fight all the time. But we do win a lot of these fights as a country and when we do, it’s one of the most satisfying things in the world.
Glasser: So what on Earth is going on with these folks? If you had to fight a lot of fights in the previous administration, what is happening to your former colleagues now? What did you tell them as you left and left them to Donald Trump?
Malinowski: You make it sound as if ...
Glasser: I know you didn’t have a choice but to leave.
Malinowski: Yeah, that’s true. I had to abandon ship. I told them ...
Glasser: And you were there right up until January 20th, I should note.
Malinowski: I did, and I probably spoke to almost everybody on my large team about the difficulties ahead and I told them invariably that they should stay if they were career civil servants or foreign service officers, that they should do their best to do their duty under a new president. That there would be a lot of good people coming in with Trump that probably disagreed with him on a lot of stuff, and that there would probably be opportunities to make things better. And if they got to a point where that wasn’t possible; well, then they could reevaluate.
Right now, I think they’re all in a really, really tough spot. And I don’t just mean people in the Human Rights Bureau but our entire diplomatic family. I think the choice that our career diplomats are facing right now is basically this: No. 1, you can try to make things better at the margins, while explaining to your foreign counterparts that they need to bear with us. As Secretary Mattis did on a recent trip to Australia. Or you can try to lay low and work on some country or program that the president hopefully is not going to notice. And there’s a lot the State Department does every day that Donald Trump is not going to think about.Or you can resign.
Glasser: We saw a resignation just this last week with the number two — the acting ambassador in Beijing, who resigned citing the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Do you think we should expect more of that?
Malinowski: I fear more of that. For the sake of the country, I hope nobody resigns because rebuilding a professional foreign and civil service is going to be really, really difficult if it, in fact, is eroded by this craziness. So I hope for our sake that folks find a way to stay. But obviously, if you are the person in that position, you have to also think about your own life and career and your own conscience.
Glasser: Were there ways that you thought about at the time to sort of Trump-proof the system when it came to human rights? We can talk about your views on Russia. It’s been reported that you and a colleague went up to Capitol Hill to talk to Sen. Cardin, who has been a big supporter of sanctions against Russia and human rights policy to talk about what could happen in order not to have the Trump administration lift sanctions on Russia. Tell us a little bit about that effort and why you think he hasn’t lifted sanctions on Russia yet and then we can talk about other kinds of issues like that, where it may make a difference.
Malinowski: I think he wanted to lift sanctions. He said he did. It wasn’t a surprise when we learned in the first few days of the new administration that his team was asking for options.
Glasser: That’s right. You and I talked about it at the time.
Malinowski: That’s right, and again, I was shocked in a way, because I thought it was a terrible idea but I was not surprised because after all, it was what he said he would do.
Glasser: And in your view, this is very much connected with his affinity with Putin?
Malinowski: I do. I don’t know about collusion. I don’t know if there was a deal, but I actually think even if there was, it goes beyond that. I think Trump is basically driven by a desire to be liked and not to be disapproved of. And the Saudis and the Emiratis like him and they don’t wag their fingers at him. Putin said nice things about him and our European allies that have bled and sacrificed with us in every war since the beginning of the last century; he senses that they disapprove of him and so, therefore, they’re bad.
I don’t think it goes that much beyond that. I also think just Putin and Trump in some ways are similar characters. They both have authoritarian instincts. So I think there is a mutual sympathy there. I think he also likes big countries more than small countries and when you see the world in transactional terms, Russia is a much more important potential friend than say, Lithuania. Russia can do a lot more for us or to us than Lithuania. So it makes sense from that point of view.
Glasser: So you went up to see Cardin. What was the goal of that?
Malinowski: I told Sen. Cardin and others on Capitol Hill that I had heard that they were indeed moving in this direction. That they should exercise their authority to call in State Department officials for briefings to ask them what’s going on. And at that point, the State Department would then tell them what’s going on. And I encouraged them to move forward legislation that would codify into law the sanctions that President Obama had imposed by executive order, which Sen. Cardin, with a large bipartisan group of co-sponsors; Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain proceeded to do.
The think the very clear message that the Trump administration got from the Congress at that point and then the firing of Gen. Mike Flynn and the growing pressure of the Russia investigation combined to stay the president’s hand.
Glasser: Was that the only issue that you felt was warranting of that level of kind of emergency attention at that point in time? Were there other issues in that transition period that you thought, “I’ve got to do something about now to make sure we don’t get a bad outcome.”
Malinowski: Well, Russia was the main thing and a number of us also endeavored to make sure that any evidence that had been gathered by our intelligence community of inappropriate behavior of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, that that evidence be preserved, that it be shared with appropriately cleared members of Congress.
Glasser: What does that mean? That you endeavored to make sure that people on Capitol Hill had copies of this?
Malinowski: Yeah, absolutely and again, we’re not talking about leaks here. We’re talking about senior members of Congress who had a right to know and who had access, but who needed to know what to ask for and so that was done and I think it was the right thing to do. After, of course, then after President Trump took over, there were a number of executive orders from the awful Muslim travel and refugee ban that a number of us rallied to try to oppose. There were other things that had been suggested that didn’t happen. The planned designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, for example.
Which I think was also headed off by a lot of smart, external advocacy.
Glasser: Right, so basically, finding out about that quickly and flagging it for people.
Malinowski: Yeah, that’s right.
Glasser: So that’s a sort of a form of external resistance, if you will.
Glasser: Yeah, perfectly appropriate. It’s how the policy debate always goes, except, in this case, we felt that there were moves afoot that went well beyond the norms of what Republican or Democratic administrations would have considered appropriate in the past.
Glasser: So that Muslim Brotherhood thing is one thing. The Russia thing is another. Are there a couple of other examples that you think are outside the norm?
Malinowski: I think the biggest thing and they tried to do it was the travel ban, which I thought was transparently an effort to limit travel to and immigration to the United States from Muslim majority countries that did not do business with the Trump organization. And I mean that literally because that was the distinction. He did not do this to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates or to Egypt or to countries which were on his nice list because he had these relationships.
Glasser: Well, look, this is obviously, a good example also of where it’s not just Congress who are an external advocacy but the court’s system is clearly going to make that decision.
Malinowski: Well, ultimately the courts did and I think, again, silver linings. I think we had an effort by a president to do something that was un-American and unconstitutional and that sent a very terrible message to the world about our own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. But then, our institutions responded marvelously. And in that case, the courts have so far prevented the president from implementing this order and I hope the rest of the world sees that as an example of what is good and strong about American democracy.
Glasser: Well, as I said, you are definitely a glass-half-full optimist. The rest of the world is experiencing a lot of schadenfreude these days when it comes to what’s happening inside the United States. But let me close by putting it back on you for a little bit of a lightning round. We are kind of distracted here in Washington by this sort of spectacle of the Trump White House and the leaks and who is up and who is down. What are a couple of places in the world that you think we should be paying more attention where we’re not so distracted? Are there things that we’re missing because of this big set of stories here at home? I’m thinking this unraveling of Turkey is one good example of one place that has been on a kind of alarming trajectory. Are there other things you’re watching?
Malinowski: I think even those of us who have spent years thinking primarily about foreign policy are focused mostly right now on what’s going on in our own country.And I find myself picking up the newspaper and reading about something that’s happening in Bahrain, or in Burma, or in Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia, or in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, countries that I care deeply about and I’ve worked on and I think are important to the United States. And yet, I feel like, 'You know what? We’ve got to take care of our business here because if America — there are things happening in the United States right now that make it impossible for the United States to effectively promote peace, democracy, rule of law, stability, around the world.'
Our strength comes first and foremost from the example that we set and the questions about the integrity of our own democracy have to be settled, I think, before we can effectively play that role again. And yet, our State Department, our Defense Department, they still have to try to maintain a holding pattern in situations of crisis around the world. So yeah, no one is paying attention to Burma. No one is paying attention to Sri Lanka. How much time are we even spending on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have been huge priorities for the United States? There’s a humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic. The Ukraine. I think we have a Ukraine policy, but we used to have a State Department that was intensely engaged in trying to help that critical country in crisis build a stronger, more stable democracy. We were helping them on anti-corruption.
We were helping them build up better rule of law. We were talking to them about protecting their media space against Russian propaganda. But not only does there seem to be no intention to do that sort of thing right now. There’s really nobody to do it because we don’t have any senior diplomats.
Glasser: Strobe Talbott was my guest on the podcast a couple of weeks back and quoted a high-level Asian diplomat visitor to his office as saying, “Yes, I’m here because Washington, DC is now the epicenter of political instability in the world.” It’s hard for us maybe to adjust to that fact but I guess it’s a new normal. So what’s next for you, Tom?
Malinowski: Well, I just got back from an epic one-month vacation in Vietnam and Papua, New Guinea.
Glasser: And I should say, you look very tan and fit in the way that people who have unplugged from demanding 24-hour-a-day jobs do.
Malinowski: Well, thank you. I tried to find a place that was the furthest away from all of this that I could find and I was off the internet and unplugged.
Glasser: No Twitter?
Malinowski: No Twitter, but of course, the moment we emerged from the jungle, I just had to find out what was going on with Comey.
Glasser: I was going to say, so you missed the Comey firing.
Malinowski: Yes, I did. I emerged to Twitter from an Island off the coast of Papua, New Guinea, where there was no electricity, water, or internet.
Glasser: It’s like one of those stories of the Japanese fighters who kept fighting after World War II.
Malinowski: And yet, we knew that something must have happened because we had been — I’d been off-grid for a week, and a week is an eternity these days. But that was nice.
Glasser: So you got off this island and you’re like, 'He fired James Comey?'
Glasser: Well, welcome back to Washington, as they say.
Malinowski: Thank you. I wonder what’s happened since we started this interview.
Glasser: Well, exactly. We’re got to check our phones and maybe update later. But thank you. This is just an incredible conversation. I think it really puts us both in the here and now in what’s happening in Trump’s Washington and it also helps to understand a lot of the really complicated and not by any means, simple debates of the Obama years when it came to human rights. I’m delighted to have had Tom Malinowski as my guest this week on the Global POLITICO. Thank you, Tom.
Malinowski: Thank you, Susan.
Glasser: And of course, thank you to all of our listeners. You can listen to us on iTunes or whatever your favorite podcast platform is. You can subscribe, I hope, and you can always send me emails, feedback, whatever, at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Thanks again.