There’s an unfortunate correlation between high-level engagement with Middle East potentates and their human rights abuses. When Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, Syrian dissidents ran for cover. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak knew he was off-the-hook when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt and failed to mention democracy. Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a democracy and signaled regime hardliners that their path to repression was clear. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favorite leaders; once an emerging democracy, Turkey now ranks below Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom and Erdogan rounds up political opponents in the dead of night.
Earlier this month, Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani joined the club. During his trip to Washington, he met not only with his usual interlocutor Vice President Joseph Biden, but also Obama. He gloated at his reception and calculated that the embrace meant that he would face no more pressure to curtail rampant corruption or respect basic human rights.
The result was this—the arrest of Sherwan Serwani, the editor of an independent Kurdish magazine by security forces controlled by Masud’s son Masrour, who also visited the White House. Serwani has since disappeared. American human rights activists often talk about “disappearances,” but seldom do they get caught on video. Barzani added an exclamation point to his crackdown by banning Hell of Truth, a book by a former employee which detailed corruption within the Kurdish authority. The author has since fled for his life.
Dialogue can be important, even with dictators. But that’s what Biden is for. Rolling out the red-carpet for dictators can be very dangerous indeed, unless Obama is insincere about his call for democracy and freedom in the Middle East.