Once again, President Barack Obama has forged a “new way forward” with a former Cold War adversary. In the process of “unshackling” his fellow countrymen from the past, the president is also blazing a new trail for his party to follow. In time, Obama’s fellow Democrats may come to regret the course he chose for them.
As COMMENTARY’s Max Boot remarked, Obama was absolutely right to lift a long-standing arms embargo on Vietnam. Hanoi is an increasingly important ally in America’s strategic effort to constrain the influence of the People’s Republic in the South China Sea, and cementing bilateral ties is a strategic imperative. A bloodless appraisal of the zero-sum game in East Asia, divorced from ideological considerations, leaves the president with no other options. Furthermore, the move represents the culmination of a process inaugurated by Bill Clinton and advanced by George W. Bush. But Obama broke from his predecessors — and from the Democratic Party, generally — by appearing to abandon America’s traditional concern for human rights and political liberalization, even if as no more than a perfunctory afterthought.
On Monday, just hours after the Vietnamese people turned out in what were supposedly record numbers to reaffirm the legitimacy of their communist government, Obama appeared alongside his Vietnamese counterpart to announce the lifting of Washington’s arms embargo. According to official figures, 98.77 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in the National Assembly elections. Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere observed, however, that the polling places he visited were sparsely populated. What’s more, those voters who did turn out were presented only the illusion of choice. As the New York Times reported, despite Hanoi’s decision to allow independent candidates to run for office in 2002, few such candidates who hold truly oppositional views are cleared by the government to appear on a ballot.
There was no mention of this undemocratic character of Vietnam’s elections in Barack Obama’s speech. Nor, as Dovere noted, did the president make mention of Vietnam’s subpar record on human rights.
Obama’s silence on Vietnam’s human rights record is a departure from American form. When Bill Clinton pursued the normalization of relations with Hanoi in 1995, the administration was clear that progress on human rights was a virtual prerequisite for closer ties. “[F]or our relations to grow deeper,” George W. Bush said in 2007 alongside Vietnam’s then-President Nguyen Minh Triet, “it’s important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights, freedom, and democracy.” This was no idle quip. In 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration suspended dialogue regarding human rights due to what was dubbed “insufficient progress” on Hanoi’s part.
This isn’t the first time that the president has subordinated concerns on human rights to what he perceives to be the nation’s near-and-long-term geostrategic objectives. From Iran to Venezuela, from Damascus to Moscow, the president has declined to leverage human rights issues, as have his Democratic predecessors and their advisors. Lifting the arms embargo without reciprocity in the form of liberalization, “perilously weakened our leverage for securing human rights reforms in Vietnam,” insisted Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez. She may be the squeakiest wheel from a district with a substantial Vietnamese population, but it’s a safe bet she isn’t the only Democrat shaken by the president’s failure to express full-throated support for democratic reforms in Hanoi.
Only following Obama’s conspicuous deference and some uncomfortable squirming by his fellow Democrats did the president break his silence. In a nationally broadcast speech in Vietnam on Tuesday, the president stressed the need for authorities in Hanoi to protect the rights of dissenters. Obama insisted that such freedoms are an adhesive that binds a nation together. He added, cleverly, that such freedoms reinforce predictable norms of behavior which accelerate economic growth. “That is how some of our greatest companies began,” Obama said of America’s freedoms of speech and expression. Hanoi’s decision to allow the Vietnamese people to hear the president’s critique of their system is a welcome development. The communist government’s simultaneous determination to prohibit a number of democratic activists from meeting with Obama upon his request, however, indicates that the Southeast Asian nation still has a long way to go.
As reciprocity for normalizing relations with the communist Cuba, Obama required precisely nothing of Raul Castro’s government. There was no demand for internal reforms and no request for relaxing restrictions on dissent and political protest. “Cuba has arguably done more than any other nation to subvert respect for authentic human rights in the United Nations,” wrote Freedom Rights Project co-founder Aaron Rhodes. The activist further averred that Obama’s thaw in relations with Cuba essentially sanctioned Havana’s efforts to shield a motley crew of global human rights abusers from international scrutiny. The operating theory in the White House appears to be that, as is the case in Vietnam, increased commercial ties and the export of capitalism to these command economies will eventually give way to democratization. It is a theory that lacks much in the way of supporting evidence.
Vietnam isn’t Cuba, and no American president should apply a cookie-cutter approach to foreign affairs. Still, the president’s efforts to devalue human rights considerations as an element of statecraft is a regrettable decision and one that his predecessors will likely repudiate.