FrontPage Magazine | 1.18.11
By Alan W. Dowd

The White House says human rights “will be on the agenda and will be tremendously important” during President Barack Obama’s summit with President Hu Jintao of China. If so, it’s about time.

As Jackson Diehl observes in a thoughtful piece in The Washington Post, the Obama administration has not only been quiet on human rights and democracy, but has conveyed a “deeply ingrained resistance to the notion that the United States should publicly shame authoritarian regimes or stand up for the dissidents they persecute.” When it comes to speaking up for democracy and speaking out against dictatorship, Diehl writes, “The U.S. voice remains positively timid—or not heard at all.”

This is one of the regrettable consequences of Obama’s desire to be the anti-Bush, and it’s good that people are finally taking notice.

Some of us have been expressing concerns about this shift away from promoting democracy and toward a kind of agnosticism on human rights and democracy-building for a long time (see here and here).

Indeed, there were early indications of this long before this year, even before the election of 2008. Back in July 2007, for example, during Obama’s endless campaign for the White House, AP pointed out that “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said…the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Presidents from both parties have used military force to address humanitarian problems and affronts to human rights. Indeed, contrary to what the isolationists and realists tell us, this is deeply ingrained in American foreign policy:

  • In the 1840s, when Ireland was ravaged by famine, the U.S. response included “two sloops of war, four merchant ships, and two steamers” full of aid, as Robert Bremner writes in American Philanthropy.
  • TR observed that in the face of “crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror,” even when “our own interests are not greatly involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies.”
  • Truman launched the Berlin Airlift for a mix of humanitarian and strategic reasons.
  • Ford deployed military forces to rescue orphaned Vietnamese babies and children.
  • The elder Bush dispatched U.S. forces to help the friendless Kurds and the starving Somalis. Clinton did likewise in the Balkans. The younger Bush followed suit in Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa.

In short, answering when the forgotten and the oppressed cry out for help is part of what America does.

There were also hints of Obama’s ambivalence toward human rights and democracy-building in his inaugural address. Although he informed “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they “are on the wrong side of history,” he blithely promised to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

In his first year in office, he not only extended an open hand of friendship to the likes of Venezuela’s Chavez and Putin’s puppets, he averted his gaze and was virtually mute during Iran’s failed Twitter Revolution. The sad irony of Obama’s quiet, cold and calculating reaction to the stirrings of democracy in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked as a candidate, during his speech in Berlin. We learned the answer in Iran.

As his first term progressed, he pressed for a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, premised largely on atmospherics and appearances. The photo-ops, grinning handshakes and treaty-signing toasts were more important, apparently, than Moscow’s strangulation of the rule of law and democracy.   

In a similar way, craving the imagery and optics of a successful summit to highlight the differences between him and his predecessor, Obama cancelled a 2009 meeting with the Dalai Lama. True, Obama would meet the Tibetan leader a year later, but the world took notice of the president’s cave-in, and Beijing got what it wanted.

It was also in 2009 that Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced, “The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three Ds: defense, diplomacy and development.” Noticeably, strikingly, jarringly absent was something nearly administration since Woodrow Wilson has, at least rhetorically, promoted: democracy. In fact, this fourth “D” has defined U.S. foreign policy from the very beginning. Tellingly, in her unveiling of Obama’s “three D” foreign policy, Clinton never even uttered the words “democracy,” “freedom” or “human rights.”

Finally, Obama used a recess appointment to post an ambassador in Damascus to talk with the thugs who run Syria. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador there since 2005. Given Syria’s actions in Lebanon and Iraq, the younger Bush and his advisors concluded that having an ambassador in Damascus did no good, so not having one would do no harm. They were right.