Obama’s second chance to stand up for democracy

Obama’s second chance to stand up for democracy

President Obama’s second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men — in theory and most of the time in practice.

But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won’t do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don’t agree with that approach, but that’s not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn’t he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn’t we, can’t we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?

I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration’s policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden’s takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That’s right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.

And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.

Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I’m glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he’d say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.

A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.

Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House’s latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help.  Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."

Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can’t be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free?  By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?

A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.

And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it’s me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.

I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush’s, but I’m glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He’s the boss, he can have his way if he’ll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support — dare I say it — a freedom agenda.