H.A. Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans and A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Road Beyond Revolt
"Remember back in the good old days when we'd be speculating why Arab dictators fired a particular security or intelligence chief?"
The above tweet, by Guardian journalist Kareem Shaheen, was no doubt meant tongue-in-cheek – but it points to a genuine reality. In the past, when the U.S. State Department would issue missives about how "concerned" the American administration of the day was about an abuse of power somewhere in the world, there was always a certain cynicism that critics of the United States would deploy. "Why only 'concern'?" Or, perhaps, "Sure, there's 'concern', but what difference is it going to make in policy terms? Are you going to stop trading with that country?"
After U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed FBI director James Comey, there is going to be another refrain: "Don't you talk about abuse of power – didn't your President fire a senior-level justice official, just when he happened to be investigating him?" And that refrain is going to sting – precisely because there's a lot of truth in it.
To any objective observer, the manner in which Mr. Trump summarily dismissed Mr. Comey – which the latter learned about via the media – smacked of an abuse of power, even if a legal one. Defenders of the move, such as pundit Piers Morgan, cited Mr. Comey's "bizarrely egotistical" language, his "behaving in flagrant disregard" of protocol, and his being "an emotion-charged, factually inaccurate narcissist." The irony of that kind of defence is striking – because it seems far more fitting to apply such nomenclature to the U.S. President. Not simply over this particular dismissal, but over much of what the Mr. Trump has done since ascending to his office.
After all, Mr. Comey had admitted that there was an ongoing investigation into links between senior members of the Trump administration and Russia. Dismissing Mr. Comey at this time, therefore, smacks of self-interest. That perception is likely to doggedly follow Mr. Trump for a long time to come, and the effect on America's democratic institutions is yet to be seen.
But it isn't simply domestically that this move is likely to have ripple effects. For better or for worse, when Washington has called out – even if without much effect on actual policy – the abuses of power by autocrats and dictators in other countries, there has been some effect. That effect might be limited to rhetorical tools, but at least, in some cases, the regimes have felt a pinch.
In the aftermath of this move, and probably more moves to come, that pinch is going to be absent for two reasons. Firstly, because such criticisms are likely to be far less deployed as compared to previous administrations. The Trump administration has made it clear that it does not intend to use the "soft power" of diplomatic institutions such as the State Department to critique autocrats abroad – at least, not to the same extent as previous administrations. But secondly, who is going to take such admonishments with any degree of seriousness, when such autocrats can turn around and declare, "but your own administration engages in abuses of executive authority?" There will be a pinch – but in the opposite direction.
There is a cost to this. Increasingly, rights defenders the world over recognize that their job has become significantly harder. The accepted "norm" for decent politics has had its bar dropped.
The day after the dismissal, matters became even worse. Mr. Comey was presiding over an investigation into links between senior figures in the Trump administration and Russia, and the day after he was fired from his post, that same administration had a public engagement with Russia's foreign minister. Mr. Trump declared he had a "very, very good meeting" with that Russian official, and the optics arising from that are troubling indeed.
The United States is not in a position to police the world – and ought not to try – but it is in the process of abjuring a role to lead, even by a modicum of an example, the international community in ensuring certain standards. On the contrary, with moves like the Comey dismissal, it is in danger of diminishing those standards even further. Indeed, a positive appraisal by the most powerful state over an abuse of executive authority certainly involves a chilling effect for would-be critics of such abuses elsewhere. Today, autocrats the world over are resting easier, and that is hardly something to celebrate.