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.”