Obama's national security strategy is light on the human rights agenda

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, May 31, 2010

What sort of international order does Barack Obama seek? Last week he gave a detailed answer: "One that can resolve the challenges of our times -- countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; resolving and preventing conflict, while also healing its wounds."

That's a big agenda. But isn't something missing? Nowhere in that long sentence, in the introduction to his new national security strategy, does Obama suggest that the international "engagement" he proposes should serve to combat tyranny or oppression, or promote democracy. In that sense, it is typical of the first comprehensive account Obama has offered of his administration's goals in the world. In theory -- as in the practice of his first year -- human rights come second.

Big, set-piece Washington policy statements often provide a road map to the struggles over policy inside an administration, and the 52-page paper Obama released last Thursday is no exception. The White House's left-leaning "realists" -- who seek to limit U.S. foreign engagements, shift resources to domestic programs and jettison the "freedom agenda" of George W. Bush -- seem to have won all of the big arguments. Definitions of strategy throughout the report, from how to defeat al-Qaeda to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to dealing with North Korea and Iran, exclude any mention of democracy or human rights.

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama team says America has an interest in the creation of a Palestinian state -- but unlike Bush, Obama doesn't say that that state should be democratic. The policy says al-Qaeda's extremist ideology should be combated with an agenda of "hope and opportunity," but doesn't mention freedom. A section titled "Promote a Responsible Iran" says "the United States seeks a future in which Iran meets its international responsibilities . . . and enjoys the political and economic opportunities that its people deserve." Does that include free speech and free elections, as the opposition Green Movement has demanded? The paper doesn't say.

Proponents of an Obama freedom agenda did get one chapter of the report, titled "Values." But its very segregation from the other three "interests" -- "Security," "Prosperity" and "International Order," gives its proposals a fenced-off feel. The policy begins with a couple of big qualifications: The United States will promote its values mainly "by living them at home," and it will "recognize economic opportunity as a human right." That means that "support for global health, food security and cooperative responses to humanitarian crises" will share attention and resources with the fight against tyranny and torture -- which will be welcome news for rulers in places such as Burma and North Korea.

The report's discussion of "engagement with non-democratic regimes" is solid, so far as it goes. It says the administration will pursue a "dual-track approach" in which it will cajole governments about human rights while supporting peaceful opposition. "When our overtures are rebuffed," it says, Washington will use "public and private diplomacy" and "incentives and disincentives" in "an effort to change repressive behavior."

But will this policy apply to Russia -- where the administration so far has offered nothing but incentives? "We support efforts within Russia to promote the rule of law, accountable government and universal values," the policy not-very-clearly says. How about the Arab Middle East? "We will continue to press governments in the region to undertake political reforms and to loosen restrictions on speech, assembly and media," says a sentence buried on Page 45.

Maybe such textual analysis is meaningless. But Obama's written strategy has a lot in common with what has actually happened since he took office. It will sound more than familiar to the dissident Greens of Iran, or to the leaders of the nascent pro-democracy movement in Egypt, who are already deeply disillusioned with this administration. It will confirm the thinking of Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China that strategic partnership with the United States won't require domestic reforms.

Obama has already demonstrated that he does not accept Bush's conclusion that the promotion of democracy and human rights is inseparable from the tasks of defeating al-Qaeda and establishing a workable international order. But nowhere in his 52-page doctrine is there a coherent explanation of why.

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