At U.N., Obama shifts emphasis

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010

UNITED NATIONS - President Obama outlined a leading role for the United States in promoting human rights and democracy around the world Thursday, laying out a new foreign policy initiative that his advisers said will guide his diplomacy in the years ahead.

In his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama spoke more directly than he has previously about the importance of human rights and democracy in ensuring a stable world economy and global security. His words evoked those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose emphasis on promoting democracy once drew Obama's criticism.

The speech marks a shift in emphasis for Obama, who early in his presidency appeared to play down the importance of human rights and democracy in foreign policy, focusing instead on the "mutual interests" of nations in promoting U.S. economic and national security goals. The administration's attempts to promote human rights discreetly have been criticized as ineffective.

Obama's democracy agenda, as one adviser called it, will seek to encourage economic and political reforms carried out from within countries, namely through civil society groups that the administration intends to strengthen.

The approach contrasts with the Bush administration's "freedom agenda," which went beyond supporting grass-roots efforts to include direct outside influence on oppressive governments through regime change resolutions, sharp rhetoric, and, in the case of Iraq, an invasion.

"Part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others," Obama told the hundreds of delegates and audience members who filled the General Assembly hall for his remarks. "That belief will guide America's leadership in this 21st century."

Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser for human rights and democracy under Obama's predecessor, praised the speech but questioned whether the administration would pressure important partners to address the issue.

"This was his best rhetoric yet on the subject, but according to the White House fact sheet they appear to believe they are doing all they need to do," Abrams said. "That is unfortunate, because it means the gap between rhetoric and reality will only grow."

Abrams said the Obama administration has not stressed human rights "where it counts - in our bilateral relations." Multilateral actions are much less important, he said, so "with Russia, China, Egypt, the pressure seems to be off, despite today's rhetoric. And dictators can sense that very fast."

Obama used his address, which drew applause several times, to review his foreign policy record during his first 20 months in office. But throughout the speech he described a world where the line between foreign and domestic policy has grown faint, especially in the areas of national security and the economy.

Obama cited progress in reviving the global economy, preventing nuclear nonproliferation, withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq, and holding Iran "accountable" through U.N. sanctions for its disputed nuclear program. Hours later, the U.S. delegation walked out of the hall when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned whether the United States played a role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In one of his speech's longest passages, Obama described the importance of achieving a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, a process he helped set in motion this month by inaugurating a new round of direct talks.

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