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Obama and Human Rights: Wasted Opportunities and Diplomatic Incontinence

The president accepted his Nobel Peace Prize last week on the grounds that in some case it is necessary to go to war to preserve the peace, a nice act of philosophical jujitsu that, had it been tried by George W. Bush, would have met with charges of sinister doublespeak. But Barack Obama’s undeserved award, coming as it did when the country he leads is mired in two “hot” conflicts in the Middle East and a protracted “cold” one against the ideology of jihad, was only further scandalized by the fact that December 10 is Human Rights Day — the anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which has served for over half a century as modernity’s most comprehensive, most translated, and most ignored covenant on civilization. That this doctrine has been consistently flouted and scorned by world tyrannies is the fault of no one commander in chief, and yet, just a year into his term in office, Obama has already proved a busted flush on human rights from China to Sudan to Iran.

In October, the Dalai Lama — who ought to rightly be seen as a greater political dissident than “spiritual leader” — was given the first Lantos Human Rights Prize, named for the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who first invited the Dalai Lama to Congress in 1987. The expectation was that the most prominent voice for Tibetan independence would be granted an audience with the leader of the free world. Ah, but Obama’s trip to China was forthcoming and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already sowed the Nixonian field by publicly declaring that Chinese human rights were secondary to global economic considerations. So lest Communist recrimination interfere with American realpolitik, His Holiness was asked to wait it out a spell until bilateral relations faded from the headlines.

The Dalai Lama said he took no offense at the snub, but his special envoy, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, noted disdainfully that the deferred meeting indicated a “new approach on Tibet by the U.S. administration.” This was like saying that Gerald Ford’s rescinding a White House invitation to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1975 out of fear of offending Brezhnev indicated a new approach on anti-totalitarianism by the U.S. To add insult to injury, there was every reason to believe that China could handle human rights criticism and negotiate trade and debt policies at the same time. Vaclav Havel recently told Foreign Policy magazine that when he was elected the first president of the Czech Republic and two days later invited the Dalai Lama to visit, Beijing followed the gesture not with belligerence but with damage control. China dispatched its minister of foreign affairs to Prague to give its own brief on the necessity of colonialism. “This was unbelievable!” said Havel. “Why did they feel the need to explain their point of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them. When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you more for it.”

Be that as it may, diplomatic incontinence seems to be the tenet of the hour at the State Department. Consider the administration’s Sudan policy. In his Nobel speech, Obama alluded to the genocide in Darfur as an example where some as-yet-unnamed form of nonviolent global intervention is called for. Obama has elsewhere used muscular language to describe the humanitarian catastrophe that has been ongoing in Darfur since 2003, for instance, full-throatedly endorsing the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet his special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, told the Washington Post in September: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies,” referring to his self-described “pragmatic” mediation with the Khartoum regime, a set of policies that have been widely assailed by Darfuris and human rights activist as inhabiting a realm somewhere between self-delusion and stooging. “Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

Never mind the 300,000 murdered and the 2 million displaced that this horrifying glib formulation discards. The cupcake containment school of foreign policy has its most vociferous defenders in the genocidaires themselves. Bashir’s foreign minister described Gration as “even-handed” and, again according to the Washington Post, “[d]uring a stop in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, Gration was greeted like a rock star by hundreds of cheering Bashir supporters in a conference hall plastered with posters of Bashir and Obama, poorly photo-shopped together.” As our man in Sudan, Gration seems to think that because there aren’t too many black African Muslims left to rape, slaughter and dispossess, it’s wiser to just let bygone be bygones. One wonders what dark nights of the soul Samantha Power, Obama’s foreign policy adviser and the author of A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, has experienced lately.

On Iran, Obama’s position has also been depressingly lax. That country’s Green Revolution, waged in response to its fraudulent June 12 presidential election, literally begged for a strong display of American solidarity. A theocracy fed on every kind of conspiracy theory — from the anti-Semitic to the anti-American — and intent on acquiring nuclear weapons declared war on its own people, whom it regards as slaves.  Obama’s first response to this historic event was to master the self-evident by avowing that the “world is watching.” When this was deemed paltry and insufficient an indictment even by “dignity doctrine” standards, he made a slight adjustment: the United States, the president said on June 21, just as the Iranian civil protests were being beaten into submission, would “bear witness” to the mullahs’ atrocities. Finally, two days later, Obama was “appalled and outraged,” insisting that the Islamic Republic do what it has never done and is ideologically committed never to do, “govern through consent and not coercion.”

The concern, as it was expressed by all the president’s Iran experts, notably Ray Takeyh, the most pro-engagement theorist in Foggy Bottom, was of U.S. “meddling” in the internal affairs of a country that has made a convenient rallying point out of alleging U.S. meddling in its internal affairs, which it did even as the U.S. held its tongue and “bore witness” to the harvest of quiescence. As the scholar Abbas Milani has argued in the New Republic, our self-designated role as a mere “bystander” to Iranian democratic revolt was no sensible alternative to acting the part of moral second. The ayatollahs have an intractable and hysterical view of American involvement in Persian history, which is actually more pro-democratic than the conventional wisdom would suggest. As a result, Milani wrote, “No matter what the United States does — even if it maintains a studied silence — the regime will describe its opponents as U.S. tools. This accusation is a political necessity for the mullahs and deeply embedded in their worldview. Besides, no matter how much the regime denounces the Great Satan, Iranians, on the whole, remain positively disposed to the United States, at least relative to the rest of the Muslim world.”

Obama thus wasted a golden opportunity and unintentionally transformed Iranian protesters against him. Milani reported that as they filled the streets of Tehran on November 4 to oppose the regime’s 30th anniversary celebration of the taking of U.S. embassy hostages, demonstrators took a common play on Obama’s name — “ou, ba, ma means “he is with us” in written Persian — and, while tearing down posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, chanted, “Obama, Obama, ya ba oona, ya ba ma” (“Obama, Obama, either with them, or with us”). Thus the smallest price of maintaining a pseudo-prudent neutrality in human rights crises: even the victims, sounding like so many “cowboy” statesmen of yore, demand to know which side the United States is really on.