Human rights and democracy sold short
By Will Inboden This Washington Post story raises further troubling questions about the Obama administration’s commitment (or lack thereof) to including the promotion of human rights and democracy in its foreign policy. It also recalls to mind a recent speech by Hillary Clinton which had some poignant words on the subject: …the work that I ...
By Will Inboden
By Will Inboden
This Washington Post story raises further troubling questions about the Obama administration’s commitment (or lack thereof) to including the promotion of human rights and democracy in its foreign policy. It also recalls to mind a recent speech by Hillary Clinton which had some poignant words on the subject:
…the work that I have done on human rights, democracy, international development gives me a deep appreciation of the importance of winning the hearts and minds of those in societies whether or not they are for us today… I went to Beijing in 1995 and spoke out for women’s rights and human rights. The Chinese government wasn’t happy; they pulled the plug on the broadcast of my speech. But I took that as a compliment. Because it was important for the United States both to be represented and to make absolutely clear that human rights is an integral part of our foreign policy.
If readers think they may have missed this speech, that is because it was given by then-Senator (and presidential candidate) Clinton just over a year ago. Unfortunately as now-secretary of state, she has yet to follow through on the promise of these words, and in some notable cases, such as China, seems to have abandoned these values altogether (which has made the Chinese government happy, in contrast to the 1995 speech she proudly cites above).
The Post story recounts the familiar litany of the Obama administration’s current record and trajectory on human rights and democracy issues: friendly gestures towards governments such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela without any comparable outreach to freedom activists in those same countries; considering lifting sanctions on Sudan and Burma without viable alternative approaches to defending human rights victims; returning control of U.S. democracy assistance funding to the Egyptian government; and so on. It is well and good for a new administration to subject different policies to a fresh review. But in every case in which this team is "reviewing" policies, the trajectory seems to be easing — rather than increasing — pressure on tyrants and autocrats.
Add to this the fact that key positions such as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom do not even have announced nominees yet, and a troubling pattern emerges. Hardly reassuring in the Post article is the evasive and defensive quote from the NSC’s Director of Strategic Communications, Denis McDonough, that "any fair reading of this set of issues over the course of a broad sweep of time underscores that it’s a fundamental issue for the president." Which can roughly be translated as "no, human rights and democracy issues are not a priority for us."
Why this apparent indifference? The reasons are unclear, but as I have written previously, they likely include a fair dose of unhealthy "Anything But Bush" syndrome. It may also be that Obama and his team, in their oft-stated and laudable desire to improve the U.S. image in the world, are veering instead into a narrower agenda of only trying to improve the U.S. image among foreign governments in the world, and neglecting the historic American commitment to oppressed dissidents and activists.
It is this possibility that is especially worrisome. Since at least the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, support for human rights and democracy has been a bipartisan commitment in American foreign policy. And the Democratic Party itself has a largely admirable record, from Wilson to FDR to Truman to Carter and even to Bill Clinton (not to mention non-presidents such as Scoop Jackson). In potentially jettisoning support for the cause of freedom, Obama risks abandoning his own party lineage, and diminishing America’s interests and values — and image.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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