Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, citing the Freedom House report showing a massive erosion in human rights worldwide, argues that “the regression in freedom and the decline in perceived American power overlap. Moreover, the decline in freedom and the decline in perceived U.S. government interest in advancing freedom also overlap. Hard to believe all this is coincidence.” He concludes, “It is impossible to prove a negative–to demonstrate that had the Obama administration not shrunk democracy assistance, not adopted what it may view as a ‘realpolitik’ attitude of indifference to human rights advances, not backed so many dictators–freedom in the world would not have declined every single year that Mr. Obama has been president. But it is possible to wonder, and it is possible to wish that someone, somewhere in the White House were also wondering.”
There are several instances that support this view, namely that U.S. weakness abets human rights violations and that ignoring human rights violations weakens U.S. influence.
The first is Syria, where the administration refused to take definitive early action to oust Bashar al-Assad and later erased its red line. The results are grotesque and massive human rights atrocities, including the killing of an estimated 200,000 people, the use of WMDs on civilians and the forced flight of millions of civilians. Before jihadists poured into the country, could we have removed Assad? Could airstrikes at key targets to enforce the red line have tipped the scales against Assad? Almost certainly.
Second, had the president not adopted reset, not entered into a flawed arms deal with the Russians, not let Russia into the World Trade Organization without a peep, not handed off the Syrian issue to Russia, not dragged its feet on sanctions against Russia for invasion of Ukraine and not refused to arm the Ukrainians, do we really think Russia’s leader would be acting more aggressively than at any time since the end of the Cold War or engaging in massive internal repression? As Abrams notes, nothing is certain, but it is hard to see how our behavior did not encourage Vladimir Putin both at home and internationally.
Third, the administration in June 2009 could have extended support for the Green Movement and begun to exert greater political and economic pressure against the Iranian regime. While it might not have been sufficient to topple the mullahs, it would not have conveyed that we were desperate to engage the regime on nukes and therefore would overlook domestic repression. The Iranians quickly learned not to take us seriously at the bargaining table. Now we have the worst of all worlds — worsening human rights atrocities in Iran, Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East and Iranian defiance in nuclear talks.
There has never been an administration that has so divorced human rights from geopolitical strategy as this one has. It creates an Atrocities Prevention Board and sends out officials to give speeches filled with empty platitudes. But our actions in the real world — be it in foot-dragging on Magnitsky legislation, doing little to prevent the rise and spread of the barbarous Islamic State, soft peddling criticism of whatever regime is in power in Egypt or giving the Castro brothers normalization without extracting any concrete agreement on human rights — leave innocents to fend for themselves and embolden tyrants. No one in the administration has the slightest clue that the ultimate atrocities prevention mechanism is the influence of the United States, backed up by and, if needed, enforced through the use of hard power. No wonder the world is less free, more chaotic and respects the U.S. less.