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FPI Conference (Part 2): Defending the Indefensible

Jackson Diehl moderated a panel on the administration’s human-rights policy. A human-rights activist from Burma (Win Min), Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Amb. Michael Kozak from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, politely discussed the Obama administration’s dismal record. The crowd, filled with human-rights activists and scholars, reacted with restraint and even sympathy to Kozak’s plight: he was there to defend the indefensible and to take arrows for the administration. He is a well-traveled and respected foreign-policy figure and emerged with his reputation intact. The administration’s reputation is another matter.

Kozak stated the case: the administration cares deeply about human rights. Obama talked about it at the UN, is actively discussing democracy promotion in Egypt, and has joined the UN Human Rights Council to “speak truth” and engage on human rights. His fellow panelists were cordial but, to put it mildly, skeptical. The crowd sat in stony silence.

Win Min spoke with optimism about the recent release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest but explained this was an effort to “deflect criticism” from the recent elections, which the U.S. and the West have roundly condemned. He urged the administration to step up sanctions, not relax them.

Dunne was quite tough on the administration. She reminded the audience that the Bush administration had made considerable progress on democracy in Egypt, but the perception now is that Egypt has been dropped or severely downgraded by the Obama team. She wryly noted that, after all, we have given the Mubarak government $1.5 billion in aid without any improvement, and indeed some deterioration, of human rights in that country. In the Q&A, Dunne was even more blunt. She accused the Obama team of coming into office with an “anything-but-Bush” mentality that derided the Bush freedom agenda. She explained that only now is the administration beginning to treat democracy promotion with seriousness, but having frittered away nearly two years, the administration is “behind zero.”

What could Kozak say? Well, he tried his best. We really are talking to Egypt about democracy, and although Hillary Clinton didn’t mention human rights or democracy promotion last week in her news conference with the foreign minister, we have to understand there are lots of issues on the table. On Iran, where was the administration with respect to the Green Revolution? Well, there was a concern that it would be like Hungary in 1956 — we’d encourage people to take to the streets but not be able to help them. (But weren’t they already in the streets?)

The problem with the administration’s human-rights policy lies not with the dedicated professionals charged with carrying it out. The problem is the president — who occasionally talks a good game but, when the chips are down, relegates human rights to the bottom of the list. Until there is a new president, Kozak’s job won’t get any easier.

After the session, I asked Kozak if the administration was conducting any evaluation of its decision to participate in the UN Human Rights Council. Weren’t we doing more harm than good by legitimizing the thugocracies? He smiled. He paused. No, there wasn’t any talk like that. But we had taken away the argument that the UNHRC is dysfunctional because we weren’t there! (Umm, so now it’s dysfunction with us there?) We’re going to see if we can make it better. One suspected that even he didn’t buy that answer.



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