Lib­er­als turn­ing a blind eye to hu­man rights

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

On the last day of her trip to East Asia, Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton spoke briefly of the place of hu­man rights in Amer­i­can pol­icy to­ward China. “Our press­ing on those is­sues” — is­sues she didn’t iden­tify any more fully — “can’t in­ter­fere with the global eco­nomic cri­sis, the global cli­mate change cri­sis and the se­cu­rity cri­sis.”

Cries of dis­may quickly came forth from Amnesty In­ter­na­tional USA, New Stu­dents for a Free Ti­bet and Free­dom House. Has the United States given up on cham­pi­oning hu­man rights and democ­racy al­to­gether?

Now it can be said in de­fense of Mrs. Clin­ton’s re­marks that pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions of both par­ties, from the time of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, have given hu­man rights at best a sub­or­di­nate place in their deal­ings with China. And that our past calls for China to ob­serve hu­man rights have been met for the most part with stony si­lence and acts of de­fi­ance. And that the stricken Amer­i­can econ­omy at this point is in need of con­tin­ued Chi­nese pur­chases of Trea­sury bonds.

Still, for any­one with knowl­edge of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy over the last four decades, Mrs. Clin­ton’s re­marks were jar­ring. It is one thing not to press a tyranny very hard on hu­man rights; it is an­other thing to come out and say you’re not go­ing to raise the is­sue at all. It is a kind of uni­lat­eral moral dis­ar­ma­ment.

One ar­row in the quiver of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy has been our press­ing — some­times sotto voce (as in the Helsinki Ac­cords), some­times in opera buffa (“Mr. Gor­bachev, tear down this wall!”) — tyran­ni­cal regimes to honor hu­man rights. Hil­lary Clin­ton has put that ar­row over her knee, bro­ken it in two and thrown it away.

She is not the only one. On this as on other mat­ters, she is fol­low­ing the lead of the man who beat her for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion. In his In­au­gu­ral speech, Barack Obama made only the most pass­ing men­tion of hu­man rights. In his Feb. 26 speech to Congress, he de­voted just 7 per­cent of his words to for­eign and de­fense pol­icy, and made just one men­tion of free­dom.

He is re­port­edly poised to name as head of the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil a man who has en­dorsed China’s 1989 sup­pres­sion of pro-democ­racy stu­dents at Tianan­men Square. He has noted with cold in­dif­fer­ence the suc­cess of the pro­vin­cial elec­tions in Iraq.

All that brings to mind the re­port of a con­ser­va­tive blog­ger who watched Ge­orge W. Bush‘s2005 In­au­gu­ral speech with a group of lib­er­als. Ev­ery time Mr. Bush called for spread­ing free­dom and democ­racy around the world, the crowd guf­fawed and groaned and jeered. For them, ev­i­dently, Mr. Bush was a fig­ure of fun, and his calls for democ­racy and hu­man rights laugh­able. The same peo­ple who de­cried his sup­posed au­thor­i­tar­ian rule at home had noth­ing but con­tempt for his call for free­dom and democ­racy abroad.

Be­neath this stated con­tempt is, I think, some­thing in the na­ture of se­cret guilt. Or rather, anger at the no­tion Mr. Bush had stolen the is­sues of hu­man rights and democ­racy from the lib­er­als.

The de­sire to op­pose the Iraq war root and branch, to de­nounce ev­ery as­pect of it, im­posed a duty to dis­miss as laugh­able Mr. Bush’s stated ob­jec­tive — set out elo­quently be­fore the de­ci­sion to take mil­i­tary action as well as af­ter it — of ad­vanc­ing democ­racy in the Mid­dle East. A duty to side with those, like the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil nom­i­nee, who have long held that gov­er­nance in the style of Saudi Ara­bia or Syria is the best that can be hoped for in that re­gion, and the best for all con­cerned. A duty to dis­miss with con­tempt, or sim­ply ig­nore, the rather re­mark­able strides of the Iraqis af­ter en­dur­ing decades of bru­tal tyranny.

It’s quite a turn­around. It was lib­er­als who com­plained that the United States sided with too many tyran­nies in the Cold War and who (in the per­son of Sen. Henry Jack­son) in­sisted on hold­ing up Soviet trade deals to aid those per­se­cuted by the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter made hu­man rights a plank in his cam­paign and made it his pol­icy as pres­i­dent, even when it un­der­mined U.S. al­lies.

Not even when the cause of hu­man rights was taken up by Ron­ald Rea­gan, in the Philip­pines as well as against the Sovi­ets, did lib­er­als de­clare we should be in­dif­fer­ent to the cause of ex­pand­ing democ­racy and free­dom in the world. But now they seem to have done so in the de­sire to re­pu­di­ate root and branch ev­ery pol­icy es­poused by Ge­orge W. Bush.

Per­haps some­one should sug­gest that a stony in­dif­fer­ence to the free­dom of oth­ers is not a very lib­eral — not a very gen­er­ous, not a very at­trac­tive — thing.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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