Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Human Rights Problem

Human rights activists here and abroad had high expectations for President Barack Obama. They took his “hope and change” as more than a campaign slogan, imagining that he might use his celebrity status to promote democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. They envisioned him shining a bright light on oppressors and utilizing the array of tools at his disposal to aid, encourage, and protect the oppressed. It has not come to pass; instead, it is the oppressors who have much to celebrate — for they operate with impunity. They have learned that they can not only escape condemnation but also receive new respect from a president who seems indifferent if not hostile to the dissidents and human rights advocates.

Obama has responded to Hosni Mubarak’s crackdown on political dissidents and extension of the “emergency” laws not with condemnation but with billions in new aid. The president responded to the stolen Iranian election and brutal repression with silence, and subsequently cut aid to groups documenting human rights abuse. He has offered to engage Burma despite its atrocious human rights record but failed to take any significant step after another phony election. Aung San Suu Kyi remains imprisoned, and Burma is now pursuing its own nuclear program. His envoy to Sudan is widely ridiculed by Darfur activists, who are dismayed that he has not carried forth on campaign promises to crack down on the genocidal regime. And so it has been since Obama took office.

There is no more eloquent description of Obama’s sorry record than this:

It’s been a rough seventeen months for Americans whose calling is to fight for the rights of people who’ve been stripped of them by force—young men and women beaten to death in full view of the world by the agents of their oppressors for daring to demand that their votes be counted; others hacked to death with the complicity of the autocrats in power over them for having been born the wrong color or to the wrong tribe; girls subjected to the lash, or, worse, murdered by their own mothers, fathers, or brothers for appearing in public in the wrong company; believers imprisoned for professing faith in the wrong god or the wrong political system; non-believers sentenced to death for “wronging” a wrathful, vengeful religion.

And it is also worth considering why Obama and his secretary of state, when they do muster some concern for human rights, focus not on the world’s worst offenders but on their own countrymen, whose shortcomings on race, inequality, and the like never escape their exacting eyes.

It is not simply a case of misplaced priorities or even moral obtuseness. Hillary Clinton at times can wax poetic on human rights, proving once again that hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. The problem stems from Obama’s conviction that the U.S. and the West more generally are the world’s problem children and that it is our arrogance, ignorance, and track record of interference in other countries’ affairs that are the source of the world’s ills. The apology tour (which covered everything from dropping the atomic bomb to our supposed lack of simpatico with the “Muslim World”) was perhaps the most heartfelt expression of Obama’s worldview and explains his cockeyed human rights record.

Because the U.S. is so flawed, so guilty of serial misdeeds, we are in Obama’s eyes (and the left-wing academic mindset from which he derives his views) disqualified from pronouncing on others’ behavior and obligated to let them pronounce on ours and our allies. Hence, we bear witness to (and do not challenge) the Human Right Council thugocracies as they condemn countries with infinitely better human rights records (especially Israel). But we temper our words and offer our hand in conciliation (and in some cases open our wallets) to the human rights oppressors. We allow Iran to join the UN Commission on the Status of Women to opine on others’ gender discrimination but avert our eyes from the brutality endured by Muslim women and girls.

There is, of course, a practical, albeit misguided, reason for Obama’s human rights record. He imagines he will incur the goodwill of the world’s despots by soft-peddling criticism of their treatment of their own people. But it is no longer possible to ignore the more fundamental problem: Obama believes his mission is to atone for America’s sins, not set the example for the world as the leader of that “shining city on the hill.” If one doubts the essential goodness of America and is unwilling to hold others to a standard of conduct that reflects our own values, you will wind up with a human rights policy that looks like Obama’s.

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