My first assignment in Riyadh was a lesson in the overlapping but sometimes competing demands of humanitarian and security concerns in U.S. foreign policy. American foreign policy, to me, is anchored by two distinct objectives: fulfilling our responsibility to the American people to safeguard U.S. national security and interests, and fulfilling our responsibility as a member of the international community to achieve greater security and a better quality of life for us all. Overwhelmingly, I believe that these two goals are complementary, even essential, to one another. In a world of limited resources, however, we are not always able to pursue all of our goals simultaneously and with equal vigor.
In my first weeks at post, I went from ministry to ministry, trying to learn what I could about Saudi Arabia’s policies on Trafficking in Persons (TIP). Each year, the U.S. State Department, as mandated by Congress, writes a report describing the anti-TIP efforts of countries around the world. (View the 2007 TIP report here). Trafficking in Persons is a complex issue, but generally speaking we use this term to describe labor practices akin to involuntary servitude or modern-day slavery. In Saudi Arabia, our greatest TIP concern is the treatment of foreign laborers. Saudi Arabia is host to thousands upon thousands of foreign laborers, many from Southeast Asia. Many of these workers find amiable working conditions, kind hosts, and opportunity for greater financial advantages. Not all, however, are so fortunate. Some workers who travel to the Kingdom legally to work as drivers, housekeepers, and laborers, find unexpected conditions when they arrive, such as withheld wages, excessive restrictions on movement, and, in the worst cases, physical abuse. While these cases are the minority, the sheer numbers of foreign laborers in the Kingdom means that even if a small percentage of workers are mistreated, we still have a big problem. The Saudi officials I met with were dedicated and passionate about improving conditions for guest workers, but the government as a whole has yet to develop a systemic approach for addressing this problem.
As a result, in 2007, as in previous years, Saudi Arabia ranked in the worst tier for its efforts to combat Trafficking in Persons. Normally, this would require Congressional sanctions against the Saudi Arabian government. Last month, however, the President issued a Determination granting a full waiver of any TIP-related sanctions against Saudi Arabia. (View the President’s determination for a waiver here). In his determination, the President argues that continued funding of Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) activities in Saudi Arabia and continued military sales there are necessary to U.S. national interests and security. These programs are fundamental to continued security cooperation between our two countries and the effective prosecution of the Global War on Terror.
I was not surprised when I saw this determination published a few weeks ago. I cannot even say that I disagree with its conclusions. My heart breaks for victims of labor trafficking. I believe that the Saudi government, like the U.S. government and the governments of the workers’ home countries, can and should do more. We must continue to support and encourage the Saudi government in their efforts to combat TIP, but we also must continue to work with them on counterterrorism in order to ensure the security of U.S. citizens, interests, and allies, including Saudi Arabia. And, from my limited vantage point, the Saudi government is very, very good at counterterrorism.
In the long run, I believe that our humanitarian and security efforts are complementary to one another – that a more compassionate world is also a safer and more peaceful world. But in the day-to-day work of governments, the reality is that world leaders often have to make very tough decisions about what to do with limited resources. This first assignment in Riyadh was a fascinating glimpse at the parallel and sometimes competing priorities of foreign policy. It challenged me to examine my own priorities, and to consider the appropriate balance between my personal ideals (that is, my belief that creating a better world is possible, and that we in government can and should work toward that goal) and my realist worldview (my acknowledgement of an imperfect world and understanding that we have to work within existing realities in order to achieve anything, which sometimes means that we cannot achieve everything at once). I believe that we can continue to work closely with our allies, like Saudi Arabia, to improve national and international security while also working together to develop better and more cooperative approaches to our humanitarian problems. It will sometimes be difficult to achieve this balance. But I think it’s a challenge worth taking on.