James Rubin: The Decline of Human Rights in Age of Obama

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[Rubin is an adjunct professor of International Affairs at Columbia University. He was an assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration.]

Although President Obama's address to the nation served its main purpose—articulating the national-security rationale for the use of force in Afghanistan—there was one unfortunate disconnect. Obama did not link his powerful rhetoric about America as a unique global power that believes "right makes might" to his argument for the surge in troops. The moral imperative for defeating the Taliban and its heinous ideology went unmentioned.

America has both an indispensable role in protecting the world from Al Qaeda and a noble purpose that should be stated aloud: to defeat the Islamist extremists whose barbarism has done such damage to innocent Afghans and Pakistanis alike. Preventing the return to power of a Taliban regime that terrorized its own people and allowed Osama bin Laden to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks on America is a mission of which our troops and our country can be proud.

Obama's omission of the moral dimension reflects a larger trend. Over the past year, as the main contours of the new administration's foreign policy have been established, the principles of democratic values have been too often set aside. Big changes were surely needed to recover from the damage wrought by the Bush administration. And those crucial changes in substance and style—on global warming, Guantánamo and treatment of prisoners, respect for international law, cancellation of unnecessary missile defenses in Eastern Europe—have won back lost support and admiration for the United States among friends and allies. Washington has succeeded in restoring the international partnerships necessary to confront complex global challenges. But by putting a premium on listening, not lecturing, and by injecting a corrective dose of pragmatism, an impression has been left that America's historic support for the spread of democratic values has diminished.

Certainly, the Bush presidency bequeathed to Obama a weakened and scorned America. But in righting the listing ship of state, our support for democratic values, long associated with the Democratic Party, must not be thrown overboard. Steering the right course between principle and pragmatism is no easy challenge. But at least since President John F. Kennedy's call on Americans to bear any burden in the pursuit of freedom, Democrats from Carter to Clinton have tried.

A good example is China. Not so long ago, a Democratic Congress voted to revoke most-favored-nation trading status for China primarily because of rampant human-rights abuses. The first President Bush vetoed that bill, which was one reason his administration was labeled "realist." When President Clinton took office, he didn't link trade with China to human rights—much to the chagrin of the current speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi—but he did make Chinese human-rights practices a prime topic of discussion even as Beijing was brought into the World Trade Organization and bilateral relations were improved. Indeed, when speaking uncensored to the Chinese people on his visit there, he declared the communist government to be on the "wrong side of history."

The second President Bush elevated democratic values and human rights to an even higher plane. Not only did he make the building of democracy in the Middle East his after-the-fact justification for the invasion of Iraq, but his second Inaugural Address also declared the pursuit of freedom and democracy as the main mission of the United States abroad. Of course, his strategy of democracy-by-invasion soon foundered in the chaos of an Iraqi civil war. Democracy promotion was then further discredited by Bush's insistence on elections in the Palestinian territories—over the objections of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments—which led to a victory for the terrorist group Hamas and a huge new obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

At home, the cause of democracy became a partisan struggle too. It is worth recalling that at the height of their hubris, Republican legislators waved purple fingers (signaling Iraq's free elections) in the face of Democratic members who had legitimate doubts about the wisdom of Bush's war policy. Along with the huge sacrifices in blood, treasure, and respect associated with the Iraq debacle, that State of the Union spectacle is surely one reason many Democrats no longer see the cause of pursuing freedom abroad the same way. Ironically, despite the fact that President Clinton won substantial international praise for his moral intervention to save 1 million Kosovar Albanians from slaughter, somehow being called a Nixonian realist is a compliment in Democrat-dominated Washington these days.

Unfortunately, in a number of judgment calls this past year, the principle of democratic values has fallen victim to this bitter legacy.

Whether it was avoiding an Oval Office visit by the Dalai Lama, not demanding an opportunity to promote human rights during the president's recent visit to China, or not pressing for the release of jailed dissidents there, a practical decision was made that U.S. concerns about the economy, global warming, and nonproliferation took precedence in the relationship with China. In the case of Burma, there was a possibility that dialogue with the repressive junta might succeed where the previous policy of isolation had failed. And since the Bush Middle East democracy initiative was in tatters, why not shore up relations with moderate Arab states like Egypt, regardless of crackdowns on opposition activists? Sudan, of all places, has seen a similar calculation. Since most of the mass murder has already been committed in Darfur, why not be practical and work with Khartoum? The government there does have the ability (but does it have the will?) to improve the situation, never mind that its president has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court...
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