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Who Cares About Human Rights?

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2009 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Not the Obama administration.

This week brought the odd juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events: the death of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, and the visit to the United States of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. What links the two events is America's human rights policy--or lack of it.

I first met Kim Dae Jung when he was a Korean dissident whose life was threatened by the military regime ruling in Seoul. I was Ronald Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and Kim was directed to me because the East Asia Bureau at the State Department had long shunned him. Over time, Reagan ended such policies and indeed saved Kim's life by intervening when the regime seemed intent on executing him. When Paul Wolfowitz led the East Asia Bureau, we worked closely together under George Shultz's leadership to press for democracy and human rights in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia. But at the beginning, people like Kim were persona non grata at State. The Tibetans were even worse treated: I had to meet with them over at the Watergate Hotel, because the Dalai Lama's representatives were not even permitted in the building. It was the same for many Latin Americans: for years, State's Latin America Bureau would not meet with dissidents who were protesting the region's military regimes. They were sent over to the Human Rights Bureau instead; "out of sight, out of mind" seemed to be the motto of many Latin specialists at the State Department. Of course, many of those who were being shunned ended up in power--from Kim in South Korea, to Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in South and Central America. Their jailers were often smarter than our bureaucrats: I remember one Latin American politician telling me he had been treated fine in prison because "the warden knows he'll be working for me sooner or later, when we get civilian rule back."

This week, Kim died--and Hosni Mubarak was greeted in Washington with hosannas from the White House. He hadn't been here in 5 years, skipping his usual spring visits out of pique at George Bush's suggestions that reform and democracy were needed in Egypt. It is no accident that he skipped the spring visit this year too, seeking a time when Congress would be out of town and thereby eliminating any risk of untoward remarks about democracy from the Hill.
Unless he read the Washington Post's powerful editorials about Egypt and Obama's human rights policy, Mubarak must have been a happy man. When he sat next to the president for their press conference in the Oval Office, Mubarak must have noted that Obama didn't pronounce the word "freedom," or "democracy," or even "reform." In fact it was Mubarak who did, saying that "I have entered into the election based on a platform that included reforms . . . " This is laughable, of course, for Mubarak has never held a free election and immediately after the last one jailed his sole opponent, Ayman Nour.

While the visit to Washington must have been immensely satisfying for Mubarak, it did not advance American interests in Egypt. As Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment wrote in the Washington Post, "something is missing from the meeting. That would be the interests of Egypt's 83 million citizens, whose collective hopes and aspirations have disappeared from U.S. considerations since President George W. Bush's freedom agenda flamed out years ago." Mubarak is 81 years old, so placing all our bets on him--even for so short a time as the three years left to President Obama--is unwise. Like the bureaucrats who kept Kim Dae Jung away, American officials who want to rely on a permanent military government in Egypt will eventually fail (and let's be clear: the Egyptian regime is led by a retired general, Hosni Mubarak, who has never held a free election, jails its opponents, and is kept in power by the secret police and the army).