Commentary Magazine


Human Rights Under the Bus

Bret Stephens ponders whether Obama believes in human rights. He goes down the list: silence on China, new “incentives” for Sudan, more silence on Iran and defunding of the Human Rights Documentation Center, and possible engagement with Burma. It is, if nothing else, consistent. Stephens concludes:

Leave aside the nausea factor of dealing with the authors of that policy. The real question is what good purpose can possibly be served in negotiations that the junta will pursue only (and exactly) to the extent it believes will strengthen its grip on power. It takes a remarkable presumption of good faith, or perhaps stupidity, to imagine that the Burmas or Sudans of the world would reciprocate Mr. Obama’s engagement except to seek their own advantage.

But these are the “realists,” we’re told. So much of the justification here is a cold-blooded, if not misguided, calculus that we’re going to get more important things from other regimes if we downplay democracy and human rights. As Stephens notes, “It also takes a remarkable degree of cynicism—or perhaps cowardice—to treat human rights as something that ‘interferes’ with America’s purposes in the world, rather than as the very thing that ought to define them.”

This disregard of human rights is of course the natural result of several strains in the Obama foreign-policy approach. First, American exceptionalism is out. If we’re nothing special and shouldn’t be bossing other nations about then of course we should clam up when it comes to human rights. (Yes, this noninterference directive isn’t consistently applied — it doesn’t apply to Honduras or Israel.) Second, the Obami have put multilateralism and engagement ahead of all other concerns. Indeed, they have made these ends unto themselves rather than means to an end ( i.e., furthering American security). This puts a premium on “don’t rock the boat” behavior; naturally, human rights gets shunted aside. Third, Obama’s Not Bush obsession seems also to lead to a Not Human Rights approach. If George Bush and his wife castigated Burma for among other things its horrific treatment of women, Obama will be silent. If Bush called evil regimes “evil,” Obama will extend every courtesy to the Supreme Leader and his ilk around the globe. Obama promised to be different, and on human rights he certainly has been.

It isn’t very hope-filled and it’s a far cry from the idealism that characterized the Obama campaign. Will the starry-eyed liberals and the Hollywood stars mind that we’re now throwing goodies at Sudan and turning a blind eye toward the Iranian regime’s brutality? Well, it seems much of the human-rights fervor has evaporated of late on the Left. They have a much more compelling cause — carrying water for the Obama administration. And if you are committed to doing that, there simply isn’t much time to march for Darfur or petition to free Tibet or even question whether engagement of Iran has cemented the rule of Iran’s despots. Just like the Obama administration, the Left has made its choice. And once again, human rights comes up the loser.