A Nobel winner who went wrong on rights

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, December 13, 2009

In accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Thursday, President Obama talked about the quiet dignity of human rights reformers such as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, the bravery of Zimbabwean voters who "cast their ballots in the face of beatings" and the need to bear witness to "the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran." Earlier in the week, thousands of Iranians did just that, gathering at university campuses in the most substantial demonstrations in the country since the summer, when hundreds of thousands protested Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed presidential election.

But back in June, even as much of the world cheered the Iranian protesters, Obama seemed reluctant to weigh in. "It is not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling," he said at the time. The White House may have feared that public support from Obama would allow the regime to paint the demonstrators as American stooges or might undermine U.S. efforts on Tehran's nuclear program. Such fears seemed to paralyze the administration.

The irony of Obama's Nobel Prize is not that he accepted it while waging two wars. After all, as Obama said in Oslo: "One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek." The stranger thing is that, from China to Sudan, from Burma to Iran, a president lauded for his commitment to peace has dialed down a U.S. commitment to human rights, one that persisted through both Republican and Democratic administrations dating back at least to Jimmy Carter. And so far, he has little to show for it.

The reasons for this shift are complicated. After a number of conversations with current Obama advisers and former White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, I've concluded that the president's reasons for demoting human rights may have been well intentioned -- even if the strategy isn't working out as he planned.

For one thing, Obama clearly wants to distinguish himself from George W. Bush, who badly tainted the human rights agenda by linking it to the war in Iraq and by adopting an overly moralistic, evangelical tone about democracy. According to administration officials, this desire may have led Obama, early on, to be reticent about forcefully advocating democracy abroad, even as he boosted funding for democracy-promotion programs. But they believe the administration has reversed course, and they say the president is now talking more aggressively about democracy and human rights.

Some officials believe negotiating about human rights behind the scenes works better than bullying in public, since it permits nasty regimes to save face while, at least theoretically, allowing them to quietly make concessions. And some of the administration's top human rights advocates came into office focused, not unnecessarily, on cleaning up America's own abuses, from Guantanamo Bay to our rendition program -- believing that human rights advocacy starts with setting a better example at home.

In other cases, Obama seems to have decided that winning support on challenges such as nuclear proliferation and climate change means treading quietly around human rights. With China, the president may also be hesitant to risk alienating our $800 billion banker. Finally, the president seems to believe that, no matter how brutal a government he is dealing with, he can find common cause.

Yet there is little evidence that his strategy will succeed. Obama may have toned down U.S. rhetoric, but who's to say whether this will propel Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear programs, or whether China will prove to be an effective partner on climate change. "The harder-to-fathom thing for me is why they think that cutting off support -- rhetorical or material -- to democrats and dissidents in repressive societies will gain the U.S. anything on the other agendas," said Tom Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, a global democracy watchdog.

On occasion, the administration has diminished the focus on democracy at some basic institutional levels. Though the Bush administration established a deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, Obama's National Security Council structure has explicitly downgraded the role of democracy specialists. And some parts of the government seem to be backing away from even the word "democracy." "The USAID Mission in Amman called in all its implementers (grantees and contractors alike) to announce, among other things, that the Democracy and Governance portfolio (and the titles of people in the Mission) would no longer be 'democracy & governance,' " Melia wrote in an e-mail. The United States Agency for International Development did not respond to a request for a comment.

These subtle signals have emerged even from the highest levels of the government: In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted "three Ds" that would allow the United States "to exercise global leadership effectively": defense, development and diplomacy. Democracy apparently did not make the cut.

The extent of the administration's shift is also visible on the ground -- even if the payoffs aren't. In Egypt, a critical arena for democratization efforts, the United States has cut funding to independent civil society groups that promote democracy and is instead working more closely with government-linked nonprofits, according to several human rights activists who closely follow Egypt. "The administration doesn't want to antagonize Egypt, a major Middle East ally, now that they might need Egypt's help if there is going to be action against Iran," said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who previously worked on Middle East issues in the Bush administration.

In Sudan, a country whose leader is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, U.S. policy now involves closer dealings than in recent years, and the administration's special envoy to the region, Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, has deemphasized human rights abuses there. In September, he told The Washington Post that the United States should be "giving out cookies" to Khartoum, offering inducements for good behavior rather than punishment for bad -- as if a regime accused of genocide were a misbehaving child.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company