Commentary Magazine


Contentions

No Room for Human Rights

Jackson Diehl notices that in introducing the administration’s National Security Strategy, Obama omits one big item:

Nowhere in that long sentence, in the introduction to his new national security strategy, does Obama suggest that the international “engagement” he proposes should serve to combat tyranny or oppression, or promote democracy. In that sense, it is typical of the first comprehensive account Obama has offered of his administration’s goals in the world. In theory — as in the practice of his first year — human rights come second. …

The White House’s left-leaning “realists” — who seek to limit U.S. foreign engagements, shift resources to domestic programs and jettison the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush — seem to have won all of the big arguments. Definitions of strategy throughout the report, from how to defeat al-Qaeda to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to dealing with North Korea and Iran, exclude any mention of democracy or human rights.

As Diehl observes, there is no indication as to why the administration has taken this tact. There are several explanations.

Obama and his advisers may believe that this is the path of least resistance with despots and thugs. He hopes by not bringing up subjects disagreeable to them — the murder, imprisonment, brutalization, and oppression of their citizens — he will induce their cooperation. But there is now, after a year and a half, overwhelming evidence that this is not so, and indeed the thugs’ aggression and brutality increases in proportion to our quietude and attempts at appeasement. Iran, Syria, China, Burma, Egypt, Russia, and Sudan have all become more brazen, not less so. If this was the intention, what explains the fixation with a losing policy?

There are at least two explanations for that. First, as Obama has repeatedly demonstrated, he perceives America as deeply flawed and responsible for many of the world’s ills. Who are we, then, to promote and insist upon other nations’ adhering to a basic standard of decency and respect for their citizens? Then there is Obama’s infatuation with the international community, multilateralism, and consensus (which one presumes is to take the place of American power). Since most of these bodies are populated by human rights abusers, one isn’t going to fit into the “club” and gain their approval if one insists on pointing out their most disagreeable aspects.

Pundits can weigh these explanations and combinations of them to explain Obama’s approach to the world. But at some level, the why matters less than the result. We have signaled to despots that they have a free pass, demoralized activists and democracy protesters, betrayed friends, and weakened our own standing as the leader of free and democratic nations. When electing a president with zero experience in foreign policy, the country risks that it will elect someone with poor judgment or a flawed worldview or faulty executive skills. In Obama we have all three.