A critical silence
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September Barack Obama suggested that his administration's notoriously weak defense of human rights around the world would be invigorated. "We will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless," he said. He went on to urge other democracies: "Don't stand idly by, don't be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protestors are beaten."
Just over two months later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Bahrain, an important Persian Gulf ally that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The emirate was in the midst of a major crackdown on its opposition. Two dozen dissidents, including intellectuals, clerics and a prominent blogger, had been rounded up, charged under anti-terrorism laws and allegedly tortured. A human rights group that had received U.S. funding was taken over by the government. Human Rights Watch had concluded that "what we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism."
Clinton's response? Extravagant and virtually unqualified praise for Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family. "I am very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts - economically, politically, socially," she declared as she opened a town hall meeting. Her paeans to Bahrain's "commitment to democracy" continued until a member of parliament managed to gain access to the microphone and asked for a response to the fact that "many people are arrested, lawyers and human rights activists."
Clinton's condescending reply was a pure apology for the regime. "It's easy to be focused internally and see the glass as half empty. I see the glass as half full," she said. "Yes, I mean people are arrested and people should have due process . . . but on the other hand the election was widely validated. . . . So you have to look at the entire picture."
So much for a fresh start on human rights. Clinton's Bahrain visit reflected what seems to be an intractable piece of the Obama administration's character: a deeply ingrained resistance to the notion that the United States should publicly shame authoritarian regimes or stand up for the dissidents they persecute.
Yes, Obama made a public statement the day an empty chair represented Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel peace prize ceremony, and both he and Clinton issued statements last week when Russia's best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted on blatantly trumped-up charges. But in all sorts of less prominent places and cases, the U.S. voice remains positively timid - or not heard at all.
After Egypt's terrible elections in November, in which ballot boxes were blatantly stuffed and the opposition brutally suppressed, the administration's commentary was limited to bland statements issued by "the office of the press secretary" at State and the spokesman of the National Security Council. Three weeks earlier, at a widely watched joint press conference in Washington with Egypt's foreign minister, Clinton made no mention of the elections, the crackdown or anything else related to human rights.
In Latin America, friends of the United States marvel at its passivity as Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega systematically crush civil society organizations and independent media. "I don't see a clear policy," Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez - a good example of the sort of dissident Obama promised to defend - told me.
When the administration touts its record it often focuses on the declarations it has engineered by multilateral forums, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council. The ideology behind this is that the United States is better off working through such bodies than acting on its own. The problem is that, in practice, this is not true. Set aside for the moment the fact that the U.N. council is dominated by human rights abusers who devote most of the agenda to condemnations of Israel. Who has heard what the council said about, say, the recent events in Belarus? The obvious answer: far fewer people than would have noticed if the same critique came from Obama or Clinton.
Back to Bahrain for a moment. The "entire picture" Clinton referred to is that virtually no one, outside the Bahraini royal family and the State Department, shared her judgment that the parliamentary election was "free and fair." The dissidents are still on trial; their defense lawyers resigned en masse last month because of the court's refusal to consider any of their motions.
Recently, Human Rights Watch spoke up again on behalf of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who has been repeatedly harassed by security forces, prevented from traveling and called a terrorist by the state news agency.
Has the Obama administration spoken up for this relatively obscure and "voiceless" dissident? Of course not.