Change tyrants can believe in

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The first month of the Obama administration has been disappointing for the cause of global freedom. In the midst of the media's focus on this nation's economic downturn, as well as the drama surrounding the seeming inability of many high-level Democrats to pay taxes, a quiet change has been occurring in U.S. foreign policy.

We saw hints of this during the campaign, including promises by candidate Barack Obama to meet with the world's worst dictators — Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez — "without preconditions."

Obama's reaction to Russia's brutal aggression against democratic Georgia in August 2008 — calling for "restraint" on both sides — was also an early sign that he might not be a champion against tyranny. His later comments, which included some mild criticism of Russia, came only after a storm of protest from human rights activists, not to mention some well-deserved campaigns hits from John McCain, a long-term critic of the authoritarian rule and bullying of other nations by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Now that candidate Obama is President Obama, change has been coming to our foreign policy. Vice President Joseph Biden, ostensibly chosen to bring experience in diplomacy and some D.C. gravitas to the ticket, made a trip to Russia this month and pledged "a fresh start" in ties to Moscow.

What does this mean? Are we suddenly going to feign amnesia about Russia's past behavior, including its support for Iran's nuclear program, its burgeoning military sales to Venezuela and other despotic states, its campaigns against U.N. Security Council resolutions on Sudan, its use of assassination and unlawful imprisonment against journalists, human rights activists, missionaries and political opponents at home and abroad? Pressing "the reset button," as Biden promised to do, gives the Russians a pass on their misdeeds, attributing our previous attention to these actions to some kind of misunderstanding, no doubt entirely the fault of the Bush Administration.

Even more disappointing has been the initial moves toward communist China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who during her campaign for the presidency boasted of her 1995 visit to China, where she demanded that the Chinese expand freedom for women, has reassured Beijing that human rights, Tibet, Taiwan or the imprisonment of dissidents "won't interfere" with more important concerns, such as trade, cooperation on security, even global warming. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other civil liberties groups have denounced these comments, fearing that the U.S., which is the only major power applying any pressure on China to expand freedom, will abandon the cause of liberty for 1.3 billion Chinese in order not to offend the few hundred thousand communists who control that nation.

Another disturbing trend is the Jimmy Carter-esque drive to dictate to our allies how they should behave, even as we take a softer line in the face of genuine tyrants and dictatorships.

The recent comments by Obama's Middle East envoy, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, hinted that we would not look favorably on an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, which prefers a harder line against the Hamas terrorist movement.

Israelis just voted in parliamentary elections, however, with a clear shift to rightist parties such as Likud. Comments such as Mitchell's, about the man just chosen to form the new Israeli government, will no doubt encourage Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran to look for potential U.S.-Israeli rifts.

This criticism of allies, even those in a struggle for survival, is even more in evidence in South Asia, with dra-matic moves in our relationship with Afghanistan.

During the campaign, candidate Obama promised to shift attention and resources away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. Fortunately for him, the surge in Iraq has succeeded, and President Bush left the new administration with a victory and the freedom to look east of Iraq.

President Obama took the unusual step of naming a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords in the former Yugoslavia. Holbrooke's mission appears to be calculated to anger our allies in the region and give comfort to those hostile to the U.S. On a recent visit to the region, Holbrooke hinted that the U.S. was more interested in fighting the cultivation of opium poppies than in supporting the democratic government of Afghanistan. The same message was later echoed by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who stated that U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are "peace and stability," pointedly not including strengthening democracy as a priority.

In an obvious snub, President Obama has not spoken with Afghan President Hamid Karzai since taking office, despite taking the time the call the king of Spain and the leaders of Italy, Columbia and other nations. If Afghanistan is "the central front on terrorism," as candidate Obama claimed during his presidential campaign, wouldn't it be a good idea to speak to the elected leader of that nation? Do we really want to alienate a government that hosts over 30,000 American soldiers, with up to 30,000 more on the way by the end of 2009?

Of course, the United States cannot force Russia to restore democracy or China to introduce it.

Of course, by our efforts alone we cannot force dictators to allow free elections.

Of course, we should criticize democratic states who take actions with which we disagree.

The policy of the United States, however, should at least formally support democracy, civil rights, the rule of law and free markets. We should demonstrate a clear preference for our democratic allies, over governments that govern through despotic means.

The past 20 years have seen a dramatic rise in global freedom, with democracy coming to Eastern Europe, most of Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia. The Bush administration played a key role in extending this to the Middle East, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kuwait and other nations witnessing free elections, and even Saudi Arabia allowing balloting for municipal offices.

While much has been made of U.S. military actions, American diplomacy and leveraged support for human rights has been nearly as important in the cause of freedom in this region and elsewhere.

Throughout the campaign, Obama promised to use "soft power," a combination of quiet diplomacy, cultural initiatives, people-to-people exchanges, enhanced opportunities for international education, support to pro-freedom nongovernment organizations and other measures, contrasting this with the alleged preference in the Bush administration for unilateral military action.

While a month into an administration is yet early, and these might be missteps, it is an inauspicious beginning. Should these trends continue, however, we may see that the change brought by Obama will be the abandonment of not only our willingness to use force when necessary, but even our ability to nudge, press, suggest and hint that we do, in fact, prefer democracy, free markets and liberty over the alternatives.

If this comes to pass, then the hope promised by candidate Obama may prove to end at the borders of this nation, with those expecting the aid of the United States in their quest for freedom sadly, and unnecessarily, disappointed.

Wayne H. Bowen is professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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