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How the world hears Trump's tone-deafness on democracy

Updated 7:15 AM ET, Wed January 15, 2020

Editor's Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware's Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama's National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - Amid anti-government protests in Iran this past weekend, President Donald Trump did something out of character -- he issued carefully worded tweets with no spelling errors, no name-calling, no insults hurled at Democrats, and relatively less threatening language than past missives.

His tweets expressing solidarity with the Iranian people were not likely viewed as credible by anyone other than, perhaps, his political supporters. Just days before these tweets, the President threatened to respond to any regime attacks on Americans or American assets with a disproportionate use of force and tweeted that among the 52 targets under consideration would be sites important to Iranian culture.

That doesn't exactly scream solidarity with the Iranian people.

The United States has historically been viewed as a champion for democratic freedoms. Indeed, supporting democracy around the world is a core component of our overseas work. But as President Trump faces impeachment charges that call into question his adherence to democratic principles at home, his poor track record globally, particularly with respect to recent events, is also cast in sharp relief.

The President's posture during anti-Iran regime protests, contrasted with his posture during other protests in Iraq, Hong Kong and elsewhere, expose a glaring inconsistency in his approach to those seeking democratic freedoms: he supports them when they support him.

And though he has personally condemned non-democratic regimes in places like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua -- he's labeled them as socialist, the same pejorative characterization he likes to slap on Democrats whose views differ from his own.

Make no mistake: This inconsistent approach is heard loud and clear around the world; it degrades our ability to be taken seriously when we do try to promote democracy -- and when people and governments need America's support the most.

Some examples:


With a population of more than 81 million people, Iran is no more of an ideological monolith than the United States. A complexity of views shape Iranian society, though the regime often suppresses them, including through violence.

The last few months have seen renewed protests against the regime, sparked by an increase in gasoline prices and, more recently, the regime's obfuscation over Iran's responsibility in the downing of a civilian passenger jet in Iranian airspace. But Iranians had also, just days before, gathered to mourn Gen. Qasem Soleimani -- killed in an American drone strike in Iraq, authorized by Trump -- and to chant "Death to America".

The President's supporters, such as Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, claim that anti-US protests were staged rallies; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, tweeting in support of anti-regime protests, said that the "voice of the Iranian people is clear." Either Pompeo is engaging in pre-school-level psychological operations -- and ineptly trying to influence Iranian opinion -- or he was wearing a blindfold and earplugs when throngs of Iranians took to the streets to mourn Soleimani.

If America has any hope of achieving policy objectives in Iran -- namely that the regime changes its ways in response to both domestic and international pressure -- the US will have to be more sophisticated. Treating the Iranian people as one homogenous entity is as unsophisticated as it is transparent.

For example, in 2018 the administration reportedly launched an information campaign to erode support for the Iranian regime, and has spoken out against the regime's violence against protestors, corruption, and more. But at the same time, the administration has been quiet when it comes to acknowledging the affect that US sanctions have had on everyday Iranians -- even if these are unintended consequences.

What's more, there has been little recognition of the fact that a record number of Iranians turned out to re-elect President Rouhani: the fact is, the regime has its supporters.

A certain tone deafness in this administration also does not help. For example, last week on Twitter Pompeo blasted the track record of the Iranian Foreign Minister on Iranian culture. Pompeo purporting to know which Iranian officials are viewed as caring about Iranian culture is more than a stretch. The Iranian people should probably decide who does or doesn't understand their culture (note also that Pompeo wrote this tweet days after Trump made his threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites).

Trump and all the President's men do support protestors in Iran when it suits the policy objective of showcasing the regime's very real illegal and irresponsible activities that harm Americans, the international community, and very directly harm the Iranian people.

But cherry-picking which Iranian perspectives -- among many -- to stand in solidarity with hurts us and shows an amateur strategy, if there is a strategy at all.

Looking out of touch with the reality that there are a range of views in Iran, just like there are in the United States, doesn't signal that Trump or Pompeo understand the Iranian people, much less care about their right to democratic freedoms.


We know that the administration understands that other countries aren't homogenous. In the aftermath of the attack on the US embassy in Iraq late last month, in which protestors turned violent and breached the compound walls -- reportedly with the approval of Iran's Soleimani -- the Department of State appropriately noted that the protests were distinct from the protests against the government and Iranian influence in recent months. This was an overt acknowledgment from America that different Iraqis have different views -- as in any democracy.

Pompeo spoke with the Iraqi Prime Minister and "deplored" the death toll in anti-government protests this fall and "emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies," according to a State Department spokeswoman. But notably, the State Department has refused to accept another democratic element in Iraq -- the law.

Earlier this month Iraq's democratically elected parliament passed a resolution demanding that its government begin discussions for the withdrawal of US troops. But Pompeo reportedly told the Prime Minister that the US would not discuss a US troop withdrawal. Said the State Department: "At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how best to recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal."

It is true there almost weren't enough lawmakers present to vote on the resolution before it passed (many who were against it stayed home), and also true that the Iraqi government claims a caretaker status so its authority to implement the law is debatable -- but refusing to acknowledge the laws of another country doesn't paint us as a cheerleader for democracy.

We have an important counterterrorism mission in Iraq, but overall, the inconsistent message on democracy sometimes makes it harder to be taken seriously.


The Middle East isn't the only place where Trump trivializes democracy. While engrossed in negotiations with China over a trade deal, the President refused to explicitly back the right to peaceful protest in Hong Kong, instead saying that he stands with the people of Hong Kong but also with his "friend" Chinese President Xi Jinping, and calling the protests "riots."

Instead of acknowledging the Chinese government's oppressive and aggressive policies against Hong Kong, Trump again signaled that not all peaceful protests are created equal. If they threaten to derail a personal policy or political objective of his, he'll obfuscate or just keep quiet.

We've also seen this play out in Russia, where Trump has too often seemed to act out of a desire to avoid upsetting Putin.

With ongoing opposition protests, the Russian government has responded in its typical fashion -- harassing, rounding up and arresting opposition figures. While Trump has a tweet for every occasion, he has not publicly expressed Russians' right to peacefully protest, likely knowing how much it would anger Putin (Putin has in the past blamed the United States -- namely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- for supporting opposition protests in Russia).

Coming from Trump -- a man who lies about the size of crowds supporting him and regularly trashes anyone who speaks out against him, despite the US Constitution's guarantees of freedom of speech and peaceful protest -- it's a stretch to think that he would treat protestors overseas much differently.

His haphazard and faint-hearted defense of democratic freedoms and amateur approach to messaging foreign audiences when his leadership is put to the test, does democracy a disservice.

The message that comes across instead is one of a self-centered and unsophisticated executive, inept when it comes to advancing any kind of real strategy to support key democratic freedoms.

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