Commentary Magazine


It’s Still Yesterday

First Iran and now China. It seems the surest way to get a malign regime to slaughter its citizens is to have the Obama administration offer it an outstretched hand and a guarantee of indifference toward human rights abuses. Welcome to the Land of Hope.

“Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April. So, we put ideology aside. From China to Iran to Sudan to Cuba, the administration sought ways to ease pressure on human rights violators.

But none of these regimes, for their part, dropped ideology. Not the mullahs in Tehran, who rigged an election and killed protesters in order to preserve a fascist theocracy; not Cuba and Venezuela, both of which abetted Honduras’s would-be Castro in his bid to join the Latin American Dictator Club; and not the Chinese, who continue to defend the Communist Party by using deadly force against dissenters.

All this turmoil will rightfully blow up in the Obama administration’s face. At the same historic moment that the U.S. expressed a newfound acceptance of abusive foreign governance, abused citizens have convulsed in protest. The democratic revolt in Iran has been going on for nearly a month, and the recent Uighur protests in China, in which over 150 protesters were killed, are connected to a large and important liberation movement. It is in regard to those two countries that the administration made its most high-profile renunciations of human rights and democracy issues. Words, just words, now haunt the White House and the State Department. Here is Barack Obama speaking to the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime in March:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders.  We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

Here‘s Hillary Clinton on human rights in China, from February: “[O]ur pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

The administration’s record of problematic comments goes beyond Iran and China. Secretary Clinton’s original “yesterday” line came in response to a question about building a closer relationship with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Here‘s President Obama after meeting with the Organization of American States (the organization that supports Manuel Zelaya’s attempted attack on Honduran democracy) in April: “What we showed here is that we can make progress when we’re willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long.”

On the Honduras question, a new Gallup poll finds that 41 percent of Hondurans believe Zelaya’s ouster was justified and 28 percent are opposed to it. The Obama administration now finds itself aligned with Hugo Chavez and the Castros against the majority of a democratic country’s citizens. Is this how that post-ideology thing was supposed to play out?

In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, Leslie Gelb wrote, “Foreign policy is common sense, not rocket science. But it keeps getting overwhelmed by extravagant principles . . .” Never mind that in the most pressing cases (North Korea and Iran) foreign policy is literally a matter of rocket science; when did principles become an extravagance? The rest of the world runs on ideology and will continue to do so no matter how that inconveniences Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The extravagance only comes with the presumption that the U.S. can opt out of the freedom and democracy game because it’s got more pressing things to do.

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