The Obama administration, if not hostile toward democracy advocates and religious dissidents around the world, is indifferent to their fate. That is the only conclusion one can draw from a series of actions, including the administration’s latest budget proposals.
By now, the list of human rights failings is familiar: Inaction on the Green Revolution, foot-dragging on Syria, ingratiation with China, buttering up Russian President Vladimir Putin (including a congratulations on his rigged presidential election and opposition to the human rights sanctions bill, the Magnitsky Act) and silence on religious persecution of Christians around the world. But budgets, it is true, say a lot about priorities.
A planned decrease by the Obama administration in funding for democracy promotion and election support in the Middle East is prompting alarm among activists. They say cuts are likely to be more severe than first realized and that the White House appears to be giving up on democracy in the region and downgrading its advancement as a policy priority. . . .
No extra funding for democracy promotion is being earmarked for Libya, whose transition from autocracy following the toppling of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi has been plagued by lawlessness. USAID democracy programs there were cut by about half last year, following the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that led to the deaths of ambassador Christopher Sevens and three other Americans.
The total amount of foreign assistance requested by the Obama administration for the Middle East and North Africa for fiscal year 2014 is $7.36 billion, a nine percent decrease from FY2013. Of that, $298.3 million has been requested to support democracy and governance programming across the region, a cut of $160.9 million from FY 2013.
This is consistent with the administration’s preference for engagement with totalitarian and autocratic regimes and its disdain for the hard work of assisting the oppressed. In an administration that came into office touting “soft power” as an alternative to military action, the real policy seems to be “no power,” an assiduous refusal to advance American interests and/or values.
Paul Bonicelli writes, “It is not a surprise because Barack Obama has not been committed to this effort the way George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were. The large amounts spent in the first year of the Obama administration were actually the monies budgeted by Bush in his last year, and Obama never tried to increase such funding even with the advent of the Arab Spring.” He dismisses the administration’s spin that economic aid is sufficient:
When U.S. policy is to offer dictators programs that they have always been more willing to countenance if we’ll just leave them alone about their “presidencies for life,” such a policy might well alleviate current suffering. But more likely it will help dictators stay in power while they further entrench themselves (see Ecuador which has just effectively kicked USAID out of the country after years of benefitting from its programs).
So the administration’s mistake in my view is its failure to appreciate what true development is: It is, as economist Amartya Sen and others have observed, captured in one word: freedom. Only when people are free to challenge their government and change it will they be free to use their gifts and talents to prosper themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations. Only then can they truly achieve lasting and broad-based economic development and all the attendant benefits this brings, such as better health and nutrition, better education, and the freedom to be entrepreneurs and sell one’s wares and one’s labor in a free market while keeping the profits away from a rapacious, corrupt, or incompetent state ruled by a privileged political class. There is no economic development without good government, but there is no good government without democracy, at least if we are seeking sustainable development that maximizes the benefit of everyone’s gifts and talents.
Most important, dictators and those they oppress don’t buy the administration’s double talk. They see an administration that prioritizes conflict avoidance, which generally entails allowing totalitarian regimes to run amok. The head of a prominent human rights group e-mails that, of course, this is not just about money. He explains that “the problem isn’t just cuts in aid but lack of political support for democratic institutions, movements, civil society.”
Whether rooted in his insistence on being the un-Bush or in his underlying suspicion (common among left-wing academics) that the United States does more harm than good in the world, the president, more than any president since World War II, has disassociated America from the cause of freedom and the mission of uplifting the oppressed. It is not enough for him merely to eschew military action; no, he must also deny resources to those fighting against oppression. And — here’s the kicker — it is not like the sacrifice of human rights has led to some grand geo-political gains. No, from a real politick standpoint, this administration is a disaster.
This, I would argue, is inevitable. When you abandon human rights, you also give up a powerful tool for curbing aggressors and for improving the United States’ image in the world. That, come to think of it, sums up Obama’s foreign policy.