'It feels like a betrayal.' US diplomats worry that crackdowns at home will undermine their mission abroad

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Less than 24 hours after law enforcement officials violently dispersed peaceful protesters outside the White House with pepper balls and rubber bullets, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with survivors of China's brutal 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. (FILE PHOTO)

(CNN) — Less than 24 hours after law enforcement officials violently dispersed peaceful protesters outside the White House with pepper balls and rubber bullets, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with survivors of China's brutal 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Although the protests raging in Washington and across the US did not come up in the meeting, one of those survivors, Henry Li, told CNN that they are worried.

"The US is the leader of the world. It is very tough for Americans right now," he said on Tuesday, a day after President Donald Trump called on state governors to pursue "total domination" amid violent crackdowns on protesters and journalists in cities across America.

Current and former diplomats tell CNN the events at home are "scary" and "heartbreaking" to watch -- and also undermine their mission.

Former US Ambassador to Bulgaria Nancy McEldowney noted that "under any other circumstances, it would of course be wonderful for the American Secretary of State to meet with the survivors of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, because that's what the United States stands for."

"We supported those protesters then. We supported the protesters in the Maidan in Ukraine, and in Tehran, and in Hong Kong. But how can we do so now?" she said.

'Heartbreaking'

The fallout from George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis has spilled over US borders, with shows of solidarity spreading across European capitals and even in the wartorn ruins of Idlib, Syria. Allies and adversaries have weighed in, and some international officials — like Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam — are using the response to accuse the US of a double standard.

On Monday, Trump encouraged governors to be more aggressive in responding to the protests, telling them to seek "retribution" for violent acts in their states.

Journalists covering the protests nationwide have been targeted by the police. An attack on an Australian television crew by police in Washington, DC, has prompted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call for an investigation.

"Trump's rhetoric and his inept and extreme response has made things much more difficult for American diplomats around the world. In the past, the United States was perceived as the standard bearer for human rights, the beacon of light, calling for restraint, calling for reasonable compromise. And instead, we are now the subject at best great anxiety, and at worst, derision and scorn," McEldowney said.

She said if she were a diplomat in a country where this was happening, she "would be given instructions to go in and meet with the President, meet with the cabinet, tell them to stop extreme use of force, to exercise restraint, call for political dialogue."

"Instead, our diplomats are being asked to defend what Trump is doing, when it is really, I think, indefensible," she said.

A current State Department official said that America's "moral standing is challenged." The official noted that when Armenian police violently clashed with protestors in 2008, the US assisted with training and reform. Another State Department official described working with over 130 countries on police training, noting that recipients "are rigorously vetted for human rights compliance."

"We spent a lot of money to trying to do that," the first official said of the Armenia case. "We showed them how to do it, and told them, you cannot respond to peaceful protests violently even if they are destabilizing, you have to respond peacefully. Now, how can we tell that to people with a straight face?"

John Heffern, who served as US Ambassador to Armenia from 2011 to 2014, said if what was going on now had been happening when he was posted there, his usual point of contact in the previous Armenian government "would have literally laughed in my face."

"We would have had no credibility talking to him about this," said Heffern, who served in the foreign service for more than three decades. He called the situation at hand "uncharted territory."

A current foreign service officer described the situation to CNN as "heartbreaking."

"Many of us took this job believing in the United States, as imperfect as it is, could serve as the city on the hill, and that our work made it stronger. Now - for us, for our colleagues and friends of color - it feels like a betrayal. We hope for calm, and many of us are using this as a chance to be actively engaged around the complex issues of race and privilege and the unfinished business of America. But it is brutal, and lonely, and many of us feel lost," the person said.

'No doubt that the world is watching'

Rob Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said that "there is no doubt that the world is watching what's going on in the United States, and both our allies and repressive governments around the world are noting that a government that ostensibly supports freedom of speech and assembly and peaceful protests and a free media isn't acting like it at the moment."

"There is no doubt that that is going to undercut the work of our diplomats," he added.

International allies have issued statements condemning Floyd's death. Top European Union diplomat Josep Borrell called it "an abuse of power."

In Hong Kong, where the administration has reacted swiftly to China's imposition of a controversial national security law, chief executive Lam suggested the US was "adopting double standards."

"They attach great importance to the national security of their country, but look at our national security with bias, especially the current situation in Hong Kong. Everyone can see the double standard clearly," she said this week.

Already, traditional US adversaries like Iran and Russia have seized upon the events happening in America to attempt to undermine US credibility.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet that "US cities are scenes of brutality against protesters & press," and denounced Europe for keeping "deafeningly silent," saying "if it wants to keep lips sealed now, it should always keep them that way."

Tehran has maintained a regime of brutal oppression against dissidents and is ranked 173 out of 180 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Russia, which is ranked 149, scolded the US for using rubber bullets and tear gas against journalists.

Heffern, who also led the State Department's European and Eurasian Affairs Bureau for nine months under Trump, said the administration's response has been "a gift from heaven" to authoritarian governments around the world.

McEldowney also noted that the "more Trump's incompetence — his mishandling of this situation — the more it sows unrest and instability throughout our society, the more it makes our adversaries happy."

"When America is tied down with internal divisions, we cannot lead, we cannot be an effective player internationally," she said.

This story was first published on CNN.com "'It feels like a betrayal.' US diplomats worry that crackdowns at home will undermine their mission abroad"