In his response to Jen and me, Max writes: “But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have.”
The relevant question, of course, is not whether the issue of human rights was raised at all, but specifically what was said when the subject was broached. None of us were in the meeting between Obama and Nazarbayev, but here’s the report of what Michael McFaul, NSC senior director (who may well have been in the meeting), said:
In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.”
We also have this:
In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told [Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal], “There was no pressure at all in the meeting,” and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and you don’t need to have worked in the highest branches of the federal government, to understand what transpired in the Obama-Nazarbyev meeting. Rather than put any pressure on Nazarbyev, Obama decided to make the banal observation that none of us have reached perfection in our quest for the Ideal State, and to prove the point, America’s president highlighted America’s imperfections. And McFaul, when pressed on whether Obama was making a moral equivalence comparison, insists that wasn’t the case – and then proceeds to cite the presidency of Obama as evidence that we are in the process of perfecting American democracy.
These kind of exchanges are actually quite helpful in a certain way; they reveal a particular cast of mind. And Obama’s reflex often involves denigrating America in public and in private, to – well, to do what exactly?
I quite understand, as I’m sure Jen does, that, in Max’s words, “in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary.” And neither of us is insisting that Obama should have cut off relations with Kazakhstan, which is playing an important role as it relates to Afghanistan. I just don’t think that Obama, who has a well-established habit of (a) downplaying human rights and (b) bashing our allies and showing remarkable deference to our enemies, is striking anything like the right balance here. Which is why I’m not inclined, in this particular case, to cut Mr. Obama any slack at all.
My former White House colleague Will Inboden, who worked in the NSC, weighs in with an intelligent post here [http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/].