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Holding Biden to his promise on human rights

Holding Biden to his promise on human rights
© getty: President Biden

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE long looked the other way and may even have endorsed Chinese detention camps of ethnic minorities; he referred to the oppressive Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as “my favorite dictator," and bragged that he “saved” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who ordered the murder of an American journalist.

There is a new sheriff in town.

President BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE has vowed to elevate human rights in American foreign policy. That's often the view of a new president, especially a Democratic one; then it gets tempered with the supposed realities of geopolitics. Biden already blinked in limiting the U.S. response to bin Salman.

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This debate has raged forever. The "realpolitik" interests, commercial, military and foreign lobbyists, are well represented. So, it's a good time to talk to the leading congressional advocate of prioritizing human rights: New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiWashington's split with Turkey widens — but it is up to Turkey to heal the rift Democrats warn Waters censure move opens floodgates Overnight Defense: Top Pentagon nominee advances after Harris casts tie-breaker | Air Force general charged with sexual assault first to face court-martial | House passes bill to limit Saudi arms sales MORE.

Making human rights central to American foreign policy, as Biden has vowed, is realpolitik, Malinowski told me: "The stupidest thing any country does is give up a comparative advantage. Our comparative advantages are associated with our values." 

Malinowski was the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Obama administration where he forged a close relationship with the late Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE. His political credentials are impressive: In 2018, he defeated a popular Republican incumbent and was reelected last November against a strong challenger.

The Biden administration last month released the intelligence community's official finding that the Saudi crown prince approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and critic of the Saudi regime. The president declared he only will deal directly with Saudi Arabia's 85-year-old King Salman.

The 35-year-old MBS is the authority in the kingdom; the Khashoggi murder was just one of his ruthless and reckless acts. Without external pressure, however, he's likely to rule for decades.

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The administration slapped sanctions on a number of associates involved in the murder — but stopped short of bringing tough actions against MBS himself.

Malinowski argues this is insufficient: "The Crown Prince should be put on our no entry list," which bars anyone from entering the United States who has committed a human rights criminal act. Murder qualifies.

Still, the New Jersey lawmaker believes the recalibrated Saudi policy is significant: "What Biden has done is shift the burden to the Saudis. This will follow the Crown Prince for the rest of his life," he said. Biden’s willing to give the Saudis "a pass out of the dog house," only if there are dramatic changes, which would not be likely under MBS.

Malinowski and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) have formed an Egypt Human Rights caucus to ratchet up pressure on al-Sisi, who took over in a military coup a decade ago and has been ruthlessly repressive. A $197 million arms sale to Egypt was finalized in the early weeks of the administration; Malinowski feels that slipped through bureaucratic cracks.

"It's time for a total reassessment of our $1.3 billion-a-year military partnership with Egypt; it's useless," Malinowski charges. It’s an arrangement that has survived for more than 30 years, through multiple regimes.

Would an adversary like the Russians rush in? "The Russians are free to sell their substandard weapons,” Malinowski says. “Egypt knows they need us more than we need them."

China is both a super power and major violator of human rights — from Hong Kong to the Uyghurs to Tibet. It's more challenging, Malinowski admits. He wants the U.S. to support moving the 2022 Olympic games from China, but admits it's unlikely.

He's on the fence as to whether then to boycott those games, a source of great pride for China. At a minimum, he wants to make sure corporate sponsors don't facilitate bad behavior. While supporting this and other actions, like targeted sanctions, there's an overarching matter: "The measure of our success is winning the argument with them; it's similar to winning the argument with the Soviet Union."

I believe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken are sincere in raising human rights and freedom as a tenet of American policy. But the unsatisfactory response to MBS, a supposed ally who murdered an American journalist, underscores the need for countervailing pressures.

Malinowski, the liberal Democrat and McCain, the moderate-conservative Republican worked closely on U.S. policy on human rights on Syria, Libya, Myanmar and elsewhere. The New Jersey Congressman knows McCain wouldn't equivocate in standing up for refugees or victims of repression.

Samantha PowerSamantha PowerThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Trump, Cheney trade jabs The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Biden sales pitch heads to Virginia and Louisiana Washington's split with Turkey widens — but it is up to Turkey to heal the rift MORE, a top Obama official and human rights advocate, once called McCain to seek his support for a nominee. McCain was so furious at what he saw as the administration's passivity on Syrian atrocities, he hung up on her. She later wrote the Arizona Senator a letter saying she never admired him more than that moment.

McCain was relentless — whether his or the other party was in the White House. That's what the Tom Malinowskis have to do.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.