I’ll be honest: I don’t much care whether President Obama shakes Raul Castro’s hand or not. What lawmakers, activists and journalists who care about human rights are really concerned about is the president’s lousy human rights record on Cuba and other dictatorships over the five years preceding the handshake. The administration relaxed sanctions against Cuba early on to no avail. Instead, American Alan Gross is held in prison on trumped up charges. The repressive regime lends diplomatic and economic support to rogue states. If Obama did something about all that, a handshake would seem less important.
The incident comes at a time when the administration has informed Congress that the fate of Americans held in Iran can’t be taken up in negotiations with Tehran. We’ve seen Obama cozy up to whomever in Egypt has seized power, while he no longer bothers to mention the military government’s suppression of the opposition. He of course has allowed mass murderer Bashar al-Assad to remain in power without consequences for his use of WMDs. Our U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power is reduced to cheerleading for a morally delinquent president.
Now there is a brutal crackdown underway in Ukraine. On that front, Vice President Joe Biden is at least working the phones urging the government to cease violence against the peaceful protesters. Secretary of State John Kerry finally put out a written statement that read in part, “The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”
He added, “As Vice President Biden made clear to President Yanukovych during their phone call yesterday, respect for democratic principles, including freedom of assembly, is fundamental to the United States’ approach to Ukraine. This is a universal value not just an American one. For weeks, we have called on President Yanukovych and his government to listen to the voices of his people who want peace, justice and a European future. Instead, Ukraine’s leaders appear tonight to have made a very different choice.” He vowed, “Ukrainian authorities bear full responsibility for the security of the Ukrainian people.”
That’s as good a statement on human rights as we’ve gotten from this administration, but reading the statement you’d hardly know that the chain of events was set off by bullying and threats from Moscow, causing Yanukovych to step away from a trade agreement with the European Union. Are we talking to Russia about that? Issuing condemnations of Russian meddling in Europe? Nope.
Now comes the question of what the United States will do about Ukraine and how it will hold Ukraine’s leaders accountable. So far Ukraine has ignored our admonitions. The Post reports that hundreds of heavily armored police officers swarmed past outer barricades into Independence Square early Wednesday, dividing the encampment of protesters who defied President Viktor Yanukovych for more than two weeks. Obviously, he doesn’t take us very seriously, perhaps because the president has established a pattern or periodic statements with no consequences.
Contrast Obama’s handshake with the actions of newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who’s been publicly excoriating the Ukrainian government’s brutality. She knows how meaningful a gesture can be. (Voice of Russia reports that to cries of “God bless you!” she “has been spotted in Kiev’s main opposition site in Independence Square, where she was handing out buns and cookies to Ukrainian protesters.” Her presence and the sandwiches she also brought were greeted enthusiastically.)
What the administration is missing is a clear, consistent voice from the top, from the president himself, that puts a premium on human rights and understands that a successful foreign policy cannot forfeit human rights in order to “get along.” Ronald Reagan reached agreement on nuclear weapons with the Soviets but did not pull his punches on the “evil empire.” He offered to Russians unfailing support for democracy and liberty. Obama is in small and big ways too anxious to curry favor with despots. That undercuts his State Department when lower-level officials speak up and try to carry the ball on democracy and human rights.
If Obama took human rights seriously, no one would mind all that much whose hand he shakes. However, in this administration a handshake becomes a metaphor for appeasement with thugs and indifference toward their victims. Instead, he should be literally and metaphorically linking arms with the oppressed.
UPDATE: Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s office notes that in contrast to the president, Cruz walked out during Raul Castro’s speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. (This is yet another indication that unlike Sen. Rand Paul, Cruz is not falling in with the libertarian foreign policy crowd, which generally favors an Obama-like approach toward Cuba.) So noted, and no doubt appreciated by Cuban dissidents. Obama’s handshake turns out to be more than a handshake as Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports that “behind the scenes, U.S. and Cuban officials have held midlevel discussions in Havana and Washington on a range of issues, including direct postal service, migration issues, disaster response, and search and rescue at sea.”
Meanwhile in Ukraine, after meeting with Yanukovych, Nuland told the crowd: “Hello Ukraine! It is my honor to have been here in these historic and difficult days. I hope the people of Ukraine know that the United States stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity, for security, for economic health and for the European future that you have chosen and you deserve. I just spent more than two hours with President Yanukovych. It was a tough conversation, but it was a realistic one. I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night, what has been happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state. But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine’s European future and that is what we want to see the President lead. . . . I have no doubt after our meeting that President Yanukovych knows what he needs to do. The whole world is watching. We want to see a better future for Ukraine. Thank you all. I am going home to report to my government.”
Each in their own way, then, Nuland and Cruz, demonstrated what principled actions look like.