By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; A1
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.
He told the delegates that "this time we should reach for what's best within ourselves," calling on Arab states, in particular, to support the process by taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.
"If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel," he said to applause.
But Obama also acknowledged Israel's impending decision on whether to extend a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank, which he said "has made a difference on the ground, and improved the atmosphere for talks."
In discussing the United States' two wars, Obama explicitly noted a new emphasis on counterterrorism operations in such places as Yemen and Somalia. The strategy includes working with often-weak governments on their counterterrorism strategy and, at times, using military strikes against suspected terrorist operatives.
Obama has used strikes from unmanned Predator drones far more than his predecessor, mostly in the tribal areas of Pakistan where al-Qaeda's leadership is thought to be. The Obama administration has not publicly acknowledged the secret program.
"From South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach - one that strengthens our partners, and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies," he said.
Although he has previously described democracy as the most responsive form of government, Obama has always emphasized that it must not be imposed on a country from the outside. The statement has been understood as a challenge to the Bush administration's democracy-promotion efforts, most notably in the Arab Middle East.
But Obama called on nations to defend human rights and democracy in a more active way than he has in the past. He said "experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty - that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies and open governments."
"To put it simply: Democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens," Obama said.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said, "There has been a steady evolution in the way he has spoken about human rights that has shown a strengthening in language, in goals and in the U.S. ambition to lead on the issue."
"What matters most is how these words take effect in policies," Malinowski said. "This is not just a speech to the thousands of people who gather at the U.N. to hear it, but also to his State Department, his Defense Department and his National Security Council - that this is what he cares about."
As outlined by senior advisers, Obama's democracy agenda, which he plans to speak about frequently in the months ahead, will encourage economic reform, fund anti-corruption programs, promote government transparency and increase access to technology to help civil society movements worldwide share best practices.
Obama also appealed to regional powers such as South Africa and Indonesia to speak out against threats to human rights, urging such countries "not to stand idly by" when political dissent is threatened.
As an example, said a senior administration official who discussed internal thinking on the condition of anonymity, South Africa, whose civil society inspired the world by helping throw off apartheid, should be more sharply criticizing the human rights abuses in neighboring Zimbabwe.
Obama warned that global economic uncertainty is posing a direct threat to human rights, saying that some countries have set aside those values to pursue "short-term stability."
Without mentioning countries by name, he criticized government crackdowns on civil society such as those that have taken place in Venezuela, Egypt and Iran, appealing to nations that "emerged from tyranny" in particular to speak out more loudly in order to protect political dissent.
Asked how Obama's democracy agenda differs from his predecessor's, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said, "The Obama one is pragmatic and focused on doing what is best to promote the specific capabilities needed in specific countries."
"So in some sense, ironically for this president, it's less rhetorical and more roll-up-your-sleeves build capacity in emerging democracies," Rhodes said.
Some Republicans criticized Obama's response to the Iranian government's crackdown on demonstrators after the disputed June 2009 presidential election.
While condemning the government's brutality, Obama did not echo Republican calls for the government's overthrow, fearing that such direct U.S. criticism would give Ahmadinejad a scapegoat to blame for the protests.
"When we gather back here next year," Obama told the delegates, "we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency, to fight corruption, to energize civic engagement and to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.