July 9, 2019 at 12:58 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Dan Baer: Time for U.S. to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia
Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Gay former U.S. ambassador Daniel Baer is running for U.S. Senate in Colorado. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Daniel Baer, a former U.S. ambassador during the Obama administration who is now vying to become the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate, said the time has come for the United States to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In an interview Monday with the Washington Blade, Baer said the change he envisions is “hard to describe” in a single paragraph, but made clear Saudi Arabia, despite its longtime alliance with the United States in military affairs, is “not an ally” and must change regardless of the administration that is in power.

“We have security interests across the region, and we need to have a more robust and accountable bilateral relationship,” Baer said. “That doesn’t give Saudi Arabia a special position that they don’t merit. It’s not that we should be looking for some way to be more aggressive or more confrontational with them. It’s just that Saudi Arabia does not merit — they are not an ally, they don’t share our values.”

Previously, Baer served as deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, then became U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Baer spoke with the Blade shortly after winning the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, an organization that focuses on electing LGBT people to political office, and reporting an impressive haul of $1.35 million in fundraising for second-quarter 2019 in his bid to represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate.

Criticizing the Trump administration for using LGBT people and minority groups as “fodder for the president’s populism,” Baer took particular issue with the transgender military ban and new regulations allowing medical practitioners to deny health care to transgender people in the name of religious freedom.

Baer was also skeptical of President Trump’s global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality and recalled former President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat him to the punch in pursuing initiatives in favor of international LGBT rights.

“I helped write the original policy of the United States government that we would advocate a move to drive our programs and our policy to achieve decriminalization worldwide back in 2011, I mean, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but coming from this administration, those words ring hollow,” Baer said,

Bear was also critical of the new State Department commission on “natural law” established by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I think it’s obviously an attempt for this administration to pick and choose which aspects of human rights they want to stand behind,” Baer said. “I think it’s incredibly disturbing, that it looks like this is an attempt to redefine what are universal rights, that are not only the foundation of our constitutional system, but that are now codified in international law thanks in large part to the efforts to the United States and our allies to accomplish that in the wake of World War II.”

Read the full interview below:

Washington Blade: Given your expertise in foreign policy, how much will international affairs animate your campaign and career in the Senate?

Daniel Baer: Well, a couple things. One, when I talk to people around the state of Colorado, obviously, the issues that come up more than any specific policy issue is actually an issue of values, which is that people don’t want to live in a society that has the kind of open advocacy for hatred and division that we see emanating from the White House.

And so, I think a lot of people out there are people like me, who are motivated by our concern in this moment for our communities and our states that motivates us to get involved in new ways, and that’s the primary kind of overarching concern. Obviously, when we talk about issues that most of us care most about are the ones that hit us close to home, to the kitchen table.

That said, the conventional wisdom that is that voters don’t care about foreign policy. I found that that both underestimates the degree to which voters understand and are engaged with issues and their level of interest. Everywhere I go — rural areas, urban areas, – people understand that the issues that we care most about here in Colorado have a[n] international dimension, whether that is the economy, they understand trade and tariffs are something that impact jobs and the prices of agricultural goods here in Colorado. So, they understand that has an international dimension. 

A lot of people obviously focus on climate change and the existential threat that it poses. We understand that it’s not just a local action that has to be used to take on that threat, but also national and international action. So, issue by issue, education, even people understand that this is about preparing young people to be able to have a shot at a middle class life in a 21st century economy, and they understand the 21st century economy is a global one, so people understand that international affairs matters.

So from that standpoint, I think foreign policy doesn’t get talked about on the campaign trail. And I think, more broadly, one of the things that is resonating, that people ask most about is who can best beat Cory Gardner, and there, I think we saw in 2018 a number of people who you probably have encouraged at some point in your reporting, but a number of people who were people like me how to record public service, particularly on foreign and national security, but had never held elected office, or enormously successful at flipping swing seats.

So Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, Jason Crowe here in Colorado, Tom Malinowski in New Jersey, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania, and I could go on. A bunch of those 40 seats that we flipped, and particularly those that were in swing districts were seats that were flipped by people who look somewhat like me, and in terms of our background.

And I think that’s partly because people want fresh voices, and they’re sick of career politicians, and partly because when you have a background in national security or foreign policy, you are positioned well to make the argument to swing voters, independents and disaffected moderate Republicans, that you understand that we’re all in this together, and that we have to get through this moment that we’re living through together, and that you’re committed to representing the whole. 

Obviously, when I was ambassador, I represented all 330 million Americans, not just those who voted for President Obama. And I think that’s the kind of candidacy that I offer here in Colorado, and one that is a winning background to take on a career politician like Cory Gardner.

Blade: But in terms of LGBT issues, where do you want to go?

Baer: I guess in terms of LGBT issues, I feel like the strongest argument for one of the cases that I have to make with fellow members of the LGBT community is that I just don’t just happen to be part of that community, but I’ve also, throughout my career, spent time on issues that affect our community directly.

Obviously, the work that I did at the State Department that you covered, including helping Secretary Clinton write her landmark speech and working out programs and diplomacy in a variety of countries around the world to help move towards decriminalization or keeping LGBT activists safe from harm.

That’s a meaningful, meaningful part of my background to me professionally and is meaningful to me personally, as well. And I think, going forward, certainly, if elected, I would want to be one of the co-sponsors of the Equality Act and I would want to deliver appropriate oversight of the Pentagon in reversing the ban on transgender troops that Trump has reinstated.

I’m committed to continuing to be somebody who advocates for the dignity of all Americans and all people driving that through policy.

Blade: What bothers you the most about how the Trump administration has handled LGBT rights?

Baer: I guess what bothers me the most is when you look at the way that they have – it’s not systematic, it’s knee-jerk, and — but it is across — you know, it’s not just the trans troop ban. It’s also the way that they’ve moved to exclude LGBT people from healthcare. It’s also the rhetoric of the president.

And, you know, I think what bothers me the most is that LGBT people like other people who are members of minority groups have found themselves as fodder for the president’s populism. We’re being used by him and his administration to fire up a base to distract from the real problems that face the United States and the world. And so, we’re being used as a means rather than end and that’s, that’s disgusting and disappointing.

Blade: But in his tweet, recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month, President Trump recognized a global initiative within his administration to decriminalize homosexuality. What do you make of that initiative?

Baer: I helped write the original policy of the United States government that we would advocate a move to drive our programs and our policy to achieve decriminalization worldwide back in 2011. I mean, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but coming from this administration, those words ring hollow.

I helped write President Obama’s presidential memorandum that came out on the same day as Secretary Clinton’s historic speech in Geneva, that outlined decriminalization as a priority of the United States government and charged all U.S. agencies engaged in work overseas with making that part of their work.

Blade: The person who is leading the charge on this for the Trump administration is Ric Grenell, who is U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and also considered the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Trump administration. What would be your advice to Ambassador Grenell?

Baer: Oh, I don’t have advice for Ambassador Grenell. I don’t know him. Obviously, I wish anybody who’s representing our country overseas well in faithfully requiting the duties of their office. 

I heard — I’ve seen reported that he’s been facing some real headwinds from inside the State Department and that Secretary Pompeo may be undermining him particularly in his work on LGBT issues.

It must be really humiliating or difficult to be in a position where you’re representing the country overseas, and you’re not sure if you have the backing of folks back home. And, you know, I wish Ambassador Grenell well in doing a job to the best of his ability. I don’t know him personally and I think he’s in a difficult position, as are many U.S. ambassadors who represent this administration right now.

Blade: Also at the State Department, there was news very recently that they would establish a commission on “natural law.” Are you aware of this commission and what do you make of it?

Baer: Yeah. I am aware of it. I think it’s obviously an attempt for this administration to pick and choose which aspects of human rights they want to stand behind. I think it’s incredibly disturbing, that it looks like this is an attempt to redefine what are universal rights, that are not only the foundation of our constitutional system, but that are now codified in international law thanks in large part to the efforts of the United States and our allies to accomplish that in the wake of World War II.

And the idea that an American government would be seeking to redefine universal human rights, and in a way that it would exclude consideration of large numbers of people is incredibly disturbing. And It must be — in addition to being disturbing, flies in the face of the idea of the universal commitment to the dignity of every person. 

It should also be incredibly, incredibly demoralizing to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in which I was a deputy assistant secretary, which already is the institutional structure charged with advancing human rights in our diplomacy. And so, the idea that they’re creating this kind of council that sits in the secretary’s office or the policy planning office instead of relying on the career professionals and experts who make up the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor is another case of the Trump administration, doing damage to and undermining and insulting the career professionals who make up our State Department.

Blade: How significant do you think it is that the State Department barred U.S. embassies from flying the rainbow Pride flag on official flagpoles?

Baer: I mean, I think more significant was the number of employees who defied that order.

We’ve come a long way. You know, I helped Secretary Clinton write the cable that she sent to all ambassadors actually, a year before she gave her her famous speech…In her first year as secretary she sent a cable out to every U.S. ambassador around the world and said, gay people, LGBT people are part of our human rights work. And you should treat the human rights of LGBT people as you would any other human rights issue and this is now part of your portfolio. 

I think there was a period of enormous transformation in the work of the U.S. government during the Obama administration, in terms of our engagement and our diplomacy that human rights was human rights for everyone.

And I think it’s petty and silly that Secretary Pompeo sought fit to bar U.S. embassies from flying a flag that is nothing more than a way of communicating our ongoing commitment to the dignity of all persons during the month in which we celebrate that. I think that’s silly and petty and I think it’s more significant that a number of embassies chose to ignore that instruction, because they understood the significance to people who frankly live in a lot more fear and insecurity than at least some LGBT people in this country.

Obviously, we’ve seen a rash of killings of trans women of color in this country in the last few months, too. So there’s plenty of work left to do. But there are also places around the world where the United States embassy flying that flag is a sign of our standing with people who are vulnerable, and I think we should always be willing to do that.

Blade: I’d like to shift to some non-LGBT foreign policy issues. Generally speaking, how would you evaluate how the Trump administration has handled national security incidents in North Korea and Iran?

Baer: I think across the board, what we see in the Trump administration’s handling of what conventionally would be called foreign policy issues is that they are all reflex and no brain. 

So it’s very hard to define a Trump foreign policy because it doesn’t seem to be consistent. It seems to be a series of one-off actions that make the world more chaotic, but aren’t clear what objectives they’re they’re seeking to achieve. 

So, you know, I mean, I think the president’s love affair with North Korea and with Kim Jong Un is not something that makes us safer. It hasn’t reduced the risk posed by the North Korea nuclear program. It probably has reduced the leverage that the United States has to address that risk, and in that sense, it has made America less safe.

What the president has done vis-a-vis Iran, throwing out the Iran deal, and then talking tough about negotiating, and then conceding on all the tough requirements, before we would sit down and negotiate hasn’t made America look strong. It’s made us look weak and alienated allies that we need in order to help us make sure that we are addressing the multiple challenges to national security that emanate from Iran, including not just the nuclear program, but obviously, international terrorism as well.

So, you know, I think the consistent theme here is that you’ve got a series of actions without a clear strategy behind them. And that’s incredibly unnerving, because the world is a difficult and dangerous place, and the United States needs not only to protect the American people from the threats that we face around the world, but also to be leading in helping to address global threats that cannot be solved by any one country alone.

The vacuum of U.S. leadership in the world is something that makes all of us, not only Americans, but also others around the world less safe. 

Blade: But regardless of the administration that is in power, is it time for the United States to change its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Baer: Yes.

I think one of the things that will go down when we look back at this period, and certainly as somebody who’s running for the U.S. Senate right now and look at the leadership that [Sen.] Chris Murphy demonstrated in calling attention to the war in Yemen, and he has demonstrated that leadership for several years, and he has built a growing chorus of voices in both the House and the Senate that recognize the role that Saudi Arabia has played in that war, and the role that the United States-Saudi Arabia plays.

To say that our relationship with Saudi Arabia should change is not to say that we don’t — we shouldn’t have one. We need to. We have relationships with difficult actors around the world. But I think certainly the relationship that the Trump administration has sought is not one that has delivered benefits for either human rights and human security in the region, or for American security interests around the world.

Blade: What would this change look like?

Baer: It’s hard to describe a bilateral relationship in a single sentence or paragraph. I mean, I think the change in the relationship shouldn’t be change for change’s sake. The change in the relationship should be driven by our recognition that one of the lessons over the last decade is that authoritarian regimes are only stable until they’re not, and the United States has long-term interests in a stable region.

We have security interests across the region, And we need to have a more robust and accountable bilateral relationship. That doesn’t give Saudi Arabia a special position that they don’t merit. It’s not that we should be looking for some way to be more aggressive or more confrontational with them. It’s just that Saudi Arabia does not merit — they are not an ally, they don’t share our values. 

They are a partner in certain regional security issues, and we should be clear-eyed about that, but they don’t get special treatment. And we should treat them with the same focus on our long-term security interest that we would treat other countries.

Blade: One more question about foreign policy: It seems that the Trump administration leadership on these issues is being taken up by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. How concerned are you about that?

Baer: On a scale of one to [laughs]? Look, I’m very concerned. Neither Ivanka Trump nor Jared Kushner has the expertise or experience to be able to be trusted to fulfill those roles skillfully and in the best interest of the American people. That’s why I’m concerned just from a quality standpoint. 

But I’m also concerned with the message it sends. This is a republic, not a monarchy. People should be selected for carrying out the most important foreign policy work of the most powerful country in the world based on their experience and skill at doing those jobs.

These are two people who have clearly been selected because of their relationship to the president of the United States, and that is a bad basis for selecting people. It’s not meritocratic, and it’s unlikely to serve the American people well, and the message that it sends around the world about who America is and what we stand for, and the quality of people that we charge with these jobs is a terrible one.

And by the way, I am somebody who having worked in the federal government for years, has enormous respect for the deep well of expertise that our federal workforce, the career diplomats, the career civil servants. That work is not only in the State Department, but in other parts of the federal government…There are world-class experts in every office that is staffed by career diplomats and civil servants.

It’s not that we couldn’t find anybody better. The president of the United States is too insecure to actually put career professionals in charge of things that career professionals should be in charge of or that serious well-respected experts should be in charge of.

Blade: Getting back to your own race, how significant do you think it would be if you were to become the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate?

Baer: Look, I don’t think it’s a qualification per se, and obviously I’m running based on my record of public service and because I believe I am the most qualified candidate and because I believe I can beat Cory Gardner.

But I think, there’s no question that for me, as somebody who grew up in the Colorado that had Amendment 2 passed. I was 15 when that happened at the age when you start to think about what am I going to make of my life, and the answer that was in front of me was that the majority of people in my community had voted for an amendment to the state constitution that made it illegal to protect the civil rights of people like me. Obviously, I wasn’t out at that point, but I had sense that I might be different from other folks, and I can remember the weight of that election night when Amendment 2 passed. 

I know from my own life that having examples of people who live happy, public successful lives is really important to being able to dream their own daydreams. And so, I think while it’s not necessarily, certainly not the first reason I hope people vote for me — I hope people vote for me because they know I would do a good job at being a U.S. senator — I do think that the significance of representation shouldn’t be understated, particularly for those who have wondered whether they can live happy lives that fulfill their dreams. 

And I think I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and have advocated for the changes in our politics that made my life so far possible that would certainly deserve credit for making it possible for there to be an openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time in history.

Blade: I have another question for you about the 2020 election in terms of the presidential race. Will you support either Gov. Hickenlooper or Sen. Bennett?

Baer: Both Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennett are friends, and I’m excited by both of them as well as a number of others, and, you know, I understand that for a candidate it can sound like a cop-out to not give an answer on whom I’m supporting, but I think, like a lot of Americans watching the debates closely, inspired by the number of people who are running for office right now, running for president right now in different ways.

And I think they bring different things to the table and the main feeling that I have in looking at our contenders on the Democratic side is gratitude and awe for the deep bench that we have and the enormous amount of talent that we have that we bring to the table. And so, I’m continuing to cheer on a number of folks who inspired me, including Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Bennett.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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