The most surprising thing about the first half-year of Barack Obama’s presidency, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been its indifference to the issues of human rights and democracy. No administration has ever made these its primary, much less its exclusive, goals overseas. But ever since Jimmy Carter spoke about human rights in his 1977 inaugural address and created a new infrastructure to give bureaucratic meaning to his words, the advancement of human rights has been one of the consistent objectives of America’s diplomats and an occasional one of its soldiers.
This tradition has been ruptured by the Obama administration. The new president signaled his intent on the eve of his inauguration, when he told editors of the Washington Post that democracy was less important than “freedom from want and freedom from fear. If people aren’t secure, if people are starving, then elections may or may not address those issues, but they are not a perfect overlay.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed suit, in opening testimony at her Senate confirmation hearings. As summed up by the Post’s Fred Hiatt, Clinton “invoked just about every conceivable goal but democracy promotion. Building alliances, fighting terror, stopping disease, promoting women’s rights, nurturing prosperity—but hardly a peep about elections, human rights, freedom, liberty or self-rule.”
A few days after being sworn in, President Obama pointedly gave his first foreign press interview to the Saudi-owned Arabic-language satellite network, Al-Arabiya. The interview was devoted entirely to U.S. relations with the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, and through it all Obama never mentioned democracy or human rights.
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