Thursday, October 22, 2009

Human Rights for Me

A strange little column/post by Eyal Press at the Nation site, "Obama, Human Rights, and the Chutzpah of Conservatives." Oh, I guess it's not really strange, it's just typical liberal apologetics for U.S. human rights policy. Press begins by quoting Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer, who criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing other countries hard enough on human rights. Stephens enumerates the countries -- China, Sudan, Iran, and Burma -- he thinks need more pressure as opposed to "engagement." Not a word about Honduras, though, nor Israel. Well, Stephens has a lot of matters on his plate. He concludes:

It also takes a remarkable degree of cynicism—or perhaps cowardice—to treat human rights as something that "interferes" with America's purposes in the world, rather than as the very thing that ought to define them. Yet that is exactly the record of Mr. Obama's time thus far in office.
I can't remember a President before Obama who concerned himself with human rights, beyond talk. Generally this sort of complaint turns up during every administration, from whatever side happens to be out of power at the time. I recall Jimmy Carter being jeered at by conservatives for his professed concern with human rights: self-styled realists and pragmatists from Carter's right complained that a dogmatic concern with human rights would interfere with America's purposes in the world. Ronald Reagan, on taking office, "pushed to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter because of its ghastly human rights record." A writer in the liberal Washington Monthly allows that "Reagan's indifference to human rights abuses committed by the United States' erstwhile allies in Central America is an especially ugly stain on his presidency. Yet, as time progressed, there was one place where he did apply the logic of bringing human rights into public policy: the Soviet Union." Reagan was less concerned about human rights in China, though. And after the Tienanmen Square massacres of 1989, George H. W. Bush moved with indecent haste to restore most-favored nation trade status to China, "asserting that the U.S. must maintain a dispassionate view of world events when considering its own economic interests ... Industry reaction was predictably mixed, with textile lobbyists debunking the decision, apparel groups staying neutral and importers hailing it." Ongoing human rights violations in China didn't stop George W. Bush from personally attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Carter himself had been equally selective in his concern for human rights, from Latin America to the Indonesian slaughter in East Timor, which Carter's administration funded and supplied. (As did all of his successors through Bill Clinton.)

The "chutzpah" about human rights, then, is a bipartisan affair, as Eyal Press shows. "In this as on other matters, [Obama] has made it clear that he is a cautious realist, not a crusading idealist." Besides,
As Stephen Walt usefully points out at the Politico, which invited various analysts to assess whether Obama is "punting" on human rights: "Of course he is. No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first. And given that the U.S. record on this issue has been tarnished by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, forced rendition, "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture), extra-judicial killings (aka "targeted assassinations"), our reaction to the Goldstone Report, and the thousands dead as a result of the invasion of Iraq, I'd say a bit of humility on this front was probably in order."
I'd agree that humility at least is in order, but notice that bit about being "willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights." It's such a typical evasion, used especially by liberals to defend their side's human rights violations, as if they'd like to do something about the madness but we can't be everywhere at once, and besides, don't you leftist pacifists always criticize the US for trying to be the cop of the world? (I believe that Obama himself used this trope to excuse his foot-dragging after the coup in Honduras.) The thing is that U.S. Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, have been quite willing to spend a lot of treasure and blood (primarily the blood of dusky foreigners) to violate human rights and suppress democracy around the world. The trouble isn't that we're reluctant to intervene in other countries' affairs, but that we very happily and consistently do so.