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Liberals Turning Blind Eye to Human Rights

March 1, 2009

by Michael Barone
www.townhall.com

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 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, 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 of which brings to mind the report of a conservative blogger who
watched George W. Bush's 2005 inaugural speech with a group of liberals.
Every time Bush called for spreading freedom and democracy around the
world, the crowd guffawed and groaned and jeered. For them, evidently,
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 that 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 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 to ignore,
the rather remarkable strides of the Iraqis themselves made 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 Henry Jackson) insisted on holding up Soviet trade deals to
aid those persecuted by the Soviet Union. It was Jimmy Carter who 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
that 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.
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