Shadow Government

Obama’s freedom agenda

The freedom section of President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause — two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, ...

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

The freedom section of President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause — two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama’s relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence — an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," — they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.

Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama’s speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.

But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America’s first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history’s tides rather than merely be swept along.

What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny’s crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.

Moreover, he is a president who, no matter how beleaguered at home, still commands tremendous acclaim overseas. Focusing on advancing human rights and democracy offers a chance to direct some of his considerable soft power in a constructive direction, and perhaps even recapture some of the charismatic appeal that has since his inauguration been strangely absent.

Here follows just a few countries that could benefit from presidential attention. The list below doesn’t mean to neglect supporting human rights and democracy in strategic yet challenging places like China and Russia, which also merit increased attention. Merely, the course of events may have brought these following places — for different reasons and representing almost every continent — to a strategic crossroads during the Obama presidency:

  • Leadership transitions. Though North Korea and Egypt have many differences, they share at least two things in common: both are non-democracies, and both are approaching tenuous leadership transitions. Egypt’s presidential "election" next year will be instrumental in identifying President Mubarak’s successor, and North Korea’s Workers Party conference next week will continue the murky power succession from Kim Jong Il to his chosen heir. In each case, the transition process represents a window of opportunity to press for democratic reform and openings in the regime.
  • Brittle and vulnerable. As Jose Cardenas points out here, and as David Kramer and Damon Wilson argue here, both Cuba and Belarus are brittle dictatorships showing distinct vulnerabilities to external pressure. In the case of Belarus in particular, a renewed U.S. effort to enlist EU support for tightened sanctions on the Lukashenka regime could bring freedom to "the last dictatorship in Europe."
  • In need of a game-changer. While Iran‘s nuclear program continues to dominate the headlines (when not overshadowed by Ahmadinejad’s lunatic rantings), the unfortunate fact remains that economic sanctions alone are unlikely to alter the regime’s drive for nuclear weapons capability. Short of military action, the best and perhaps only option for a game-changer in the current stand-off is profound internal reform in Iran — which means supporting the embattled Green Movement and other courageous dissident voices.
  • Ignored but not forgotten. Eritrea — a country that doubles as Africa’s largest prison — barely registers in Washington or any other Western capital city. Dictator Isaias Afewerki has thus far not faced significant outside pressure. President Obama could use his significant profile and influence in Africa to marshal a broad coalition of African leaders calling for freedom in Eritrea.
  • Open to influence. The Obama administration is wisely working to strengthen relations with Vietnam, through cooperation on civilian nuclear energy, upgraded military ties, and support for it and other middle powers against China’s hegemonic claims to the South China Sea. This cooperation also gives the administration more influence over Vietnam, which remains an authoritarian one-party state. As I have written previously, Vietnam has shown a willingness (in part out of concerns over China’s encroachments) to improve human rights in exchange for closer ties with the U.S.

Besides the above regimes, there are others that could be mentioned — including Zimbabwe, Syria, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Or even Burma; perhaps a component of the new strategic partnership with Indonesia could be a renewed, multilateral push to peacefully end the Burmese junta’s reign of terror? In short, there is no lack of opportune places to press for freedom; it is a matter of priority and attention.

What to do? For starters, President Obama could follow the pattern set by President Bush and meet with dissidents in the Oval Office. He should also instruct U.S. ambassadors in authoritarian countries to do the same in their homes and embassies. The State Department should empower assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Michael Posner by ensuring that he is included in high-level bilateral meetings with leaders of authoritarian countries — and on the Secretary of State’s official trips to such places. The administration should ensure that funding for human rights and democracy programs — an almost infinitesimal portion of the foreign assistance budget — is increased, not decreased (
as was the case with the almost 12 percent cut from FY09 to FY10). It should increase support for international broadcasting efforts, such as the vital work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Finally, as with the UNGA speech, President Obama and his cabinet should continue to speak out on behalf of human rights and democracy — and in the future mention specific countries, and specific prisoners of conscience.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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