As a preliminary matter, she deserves credit for raising the issue. Human rights has not been high on the Obama administration’s list of priorities (be it in Syria, Russia, Iran, China or just about anywhere else). The left-wing base shows little if any interest and regularly scorns “democracy promotion,” largely because it was the policy of the Republican George W. Bush administration.
Clinton is infinitely better than Donald Trump, who actively praises and encourages dictators and marvels at their ability to quash their enemies. In his telling, Saddam Hussein was fine since he “killed terrorists.” Of Vladimir Putin, Trumps says that “at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.” (When asked about the assassination of reporters in Russia, he defamed America by insisting that we do “plenty of killing.”) As for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump insists that “you gotta give him credit” for wiping out his uncle to secure power. He lauds the Communist Chinese government as “strong” for putting down the peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He thinks Bashar al-Assad, who is responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths and millions of refugees, should stay in Syria. In short, Trump would be a nightmare for human rights around the world, especially at a time when world leaders (in Turkey, Poland, Egypt and elsewhere) are rejecting democratic values.
Nevertheless, it would be helpful for Clinton, whose State Department dragged its feet on the Magnitsky Act (designed to sanction human rights abusers in Russia) to go on record in support of extending it to other countries. The Senate included such a provision on the defense authorization act. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted out legislation to apply the law in other countries. She might use some political capital to push for passage in the lame duck session.
Clinton might also announce a tougher line with Cuba, where human rights conditions have worsened since President Obama gave away what the Castro brothers most wanted: normalized relations and easing of travel and trade restrictions. She’s unlikely to reverse course, but she surely could announce that no further steps will be taken, absent concrete steps to improve human rights. She could also announce her solidarity with the people of Venezuela suffering under the repression and disastrous economic policies of hugely unpopular President Nicolas Maduro. With sufficient diplomatic and economic pressure we might be able to hasten his departure. (Republican senators have objected to the administration’s coddling of a dictator at a time that he is cracking down on the opposition.)
And Clinton might reiterate her commitment to putting human rights sanctions on Iran and even defend her own judgment in urging, along with other senior officials, early intervention in Syria before tens of thousands of jihadis had moved in and hundreds of thousands had been killed.
There are good reasons for her to speak up. For one thing, it puts Trump on the defense and might force him to answer questions on things about which he knows nothing. Let Trump continue to side with butchers and dictators; Clinton can stand up for free people.
Moreover, some outspokenness would demonstrate to allies and foes alike that the days of a free pass for human rights violations will be over. They better scramble to improve their human rights situation before a new
sheriff president arrives in town.
What Obama and Trump don’t understand is that support for democracy and standing up for repressed people are strategic tools that sap our foes’ strength. They are concrete ways to undermine their authority and diminish their international standing. Robust support for human rights also rewards U.S. allies who have made strides, giving them reason to continue making hard decisions.
Democrats and Republicans, as well as NGOs, should hold Clinton’s feet to the fire. Good intentions will mean little unless she uses some political capital to move the administration in the right direction.