Thoughts on Obama and human rights

This week the Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed by Fouad Ajami, appraising Barack Obama’s first year foreign policy. It was a predictable line: the administration is inept abroad, its commitment to human rights and democracy promotion non-existent and so on and so forth. Despots do not fear president Obama and democrats and reformers are unsure of his fidelity to their causes. There are a series of hyperbolic pronouncements on a series of international issues where the administration has been less than obvious in its “support” for democratization or has shown greater concern for power politics than relations with lesser states (Iran and the missile shield issue being good examples). The false notion of a “Cairo promise” or “Cairo agenda” however one might term the belief that the administration planned to operated its policy in the Arab world with any attention to the concerns of its people beyond the Palestinian problem based on the language in the Cairo speech has now been eviscerated. Human rights is on the “back burner” in the Obama administration, if one listens to Elliot Abrams who wrote that the administration has “no human rights policy” this summer. Or Newsweek, which published a piece by James P. Rubin enumerating the areas where the administration has looked the other way on matters related to “democratic values”. He wrote: “The point is not that the new administration has made a practical calculation in some of these tough calls. The problem is that it’s done so in all of them.” Certainly some looking to free Hanevi Ould Dahah would agree with that at least in spirit. Where Ajami writes “no blogger in Cairo or Damascus or Tehran [. . .] expects Mr. Obama to ride to the rescue,” they might agree and add “no journalist in Nouakchott.” Not so long ago Secretary of State Clinton admitted that the Cairo rhetoric was … rhetoric.

But where Ajami is not so hack is his discussion of the broad expectations many American (and foreign) liberals held about Obama the candidate that have, in the eyes of many, all but evaporated. Ajami writes about “that patina of cosmopolitanism in President Obama’s background concealed the isolationism of the liberal coalition that brought him to power.” Here, too, is a great exaggeration. But “liberal orientalism” is not a poor way of describing the cynicism about foreign affairs that have taken over important segments of the American left in the wake of the Bush disaster. Whether Obama’s false cosmopolitanism and imaginary diplomatic credentials were actually part of a Democratic conspiracy to mask “isolationism” is deeply implausible. The notion that by his very “face” president Obama would persuade men way from terrorism is manifestly false; and that the president, because of his ethnicity, holds some magic sense of what beats in the hearts of Africans or Arabs or Indonesians or Venezuelans or any other set of foreigners was and is also rigorously questionable. So for Ajami to write the following in reflection of a year of Obama is not troublesome: “It was easy, that delirium with Mr. Obama: It made no moral demands on those eager to partake of it.

It was also false, in many lands.” He is also right to mock the notions of “postracism” — or postracialism as it was often called — that many have read into president Obama’s candidacy and “meaning” for American and world society (a wildly ridiculous delusion will hopefully weaken over time). Ajami has Americans “smaller” and more “cynical” after a year of Obama. “Liberal orientalism,” though, has not prevented the administration’s foreign policy from having been conducted with aptitude in many places.  As Rubin wrote, though, it leaves one to question the “principle of the thing” where the Middle East and North Africa is concerned. It hard to see what good can be done by a “liberal orientalism” that abandons in whole or in part long standing commitments to basic human rights issues in foreign policy, in an excessive way out of fear that the United States has lost its moral authority. To speak of “apology tours” would exaggerate that tendency, but obviously wavering confidence does no superpower any good, and even less for those who live in places where human rights are hardly observed. Leaving behind a policy based on a half-witted idea of democratic peace theory is one thing; abandoning the word “democracy” or muggy human rights issues all together is quite another. Especially when abdications at the highest levels come along with ones where the political and economic costs are practically nil.

It is easy to exaggerate the impact of the issuance of statements “welcoming” the release of a dissident, which at the same praise the “true generosity” of the government in question, or admissions of “disgust” at the excesses of a boy-commander-cum-coup-leader. It is also easy to overstate the extent to which much else would have impact on their respective targets, without meaningful action. In some respects the administration, on specific matters, has done the best it can. In others it has done nothing of the sort, or raised its voice or moved to prudent action in the face of abuses. Human rights and democracy are not big picture issues for the administration, which is more concerned with managing broader issues between governments. Earlier in the year some saw the president’s speechifying as going over the heads or shoulders of rulers and speaking directly to their people. It more the case that his popular speeches did deliberately appeal to the masses, but this was mainly to reassure preexisting good will, as a pat on the head or a hand on the shoulder, rather than to actually implore youths to change the world, let alone their governments. His silk words tamed the masses, so as to let business as usual go on with a happier distraction. The president often uses a quote that says: “the arch of the universe is long but it bends toward freedom.” Venerable words are rarely exploited by the powerful with such conviction.

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