The Obama administration is faltering on democracy and human rights. Take the president’s November trip to China. His “town hall meeting” was stage-managed by Communist authorities, and Liu Xiaobo, the most prominent dissident on a list given to Chinese authorities, was sentenced a few weeks later to 11 years in jail. Iranian protesters have asked whether Obama is “with us or with them,” meaning the Iranian regime. Even the president’s performance in Russia last July elicited faint praise. “Less than we needed, but more than we expected,” said Garry Kasparov, a leader of Solidarity Russia, after the president met with civil society activists and opposition politicians.

What do dissidents want? With few exceptions, they welcome American support, moral but also material. Yet their views are not always represented in the often abstract debate over what priority should be given to democracy and human rights in foreign policy. That issue is usually framed as a trade-off. The United States, the argument goes, needs cooperation from dictatorships like Russia, China, Egypt, and Iran on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, Middle East peace, and most recently climate change. If democracy and human rights are subordinated to these goals, that is regrettable but necessary. In any case, top officials are quick to lament their lack of “leverage” in pursuit of democracy and human rights, concluding that there is little to be done.

Dissidents, by contrast, are convinced the United States has leverage. “Believe me, everybody wants to be recognized by the United States, even those who have been professional at bashing the United States right and left,” insisted Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian dissident, speaking in Washington last fall. “They realize that their legitimacy is contingent on being recognized by Western democracies.” Ibrahim also challenges the assumption that cozying up to dictators yields rewards. “What have you gotten out of it?” he asks, referring to close relations with the Mubarak regime. “Nothing in the peace process. Not one inch beyond what the late President Sadat accomplished. Not one iota. And yet the regime is using its role in the peace process to keep the pressure off.” If anything, Egypt’s “cold peace” with Israel has only gotten chillier.

In Iran, the administration distances itself from the “Green” opposition movement, believing this necessary to progress on the nuclear issue. This is a mistake, judging from the remarks of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Ebadi has argued that it is human rights—not the nuclear issue—that holds the key to change in Iran and that a democratic Iran could be counted on either to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons or to refrain from threatening the United States or Israel. Pressure on the nuclear issue allows the regime to stoke nationalist sentiment, “but if the West presses also on its human rights record, [Ahmadinejad] will find himself in a position where his popular base is getting weaker and weaker by the day.”

Iranians, in this view, see human rights as universal and deserving of outside support; it is only the regime that casts human rights as a Western plot. Alienating Iran’s population may come back to haunt the United States, much as it did when Washington backed the shah. Iran’s people are quite pro-American, according to democracy advocate Ali Afshari, but “if they find that the United States does not care about their situation .  .  . they [may] change their mind, and support the hostile approach, the anti-American approach.”

While policymakers fear that supporting dissidents will hurt them, dissidents tend to see their governments’ sensitivity to American interference as an indication of vulnerability. Nor are they overly concerned about the danger to themselves from American support. Liu Junning, a Chinese intellectual who belongs to the Charter 08 movement, acknowledges that support from outside may cause dissidents trouble in the short term but welcomes it nonetheless. Dissidents are already in trouble with the regime, he says. “If the support is not there it will hurt much more.”

As much as policymakers might wish to subordinate democracy and human rights to what they perceive as more pressing national security interests, the two are not so easily separated. Both reflect a country’s character and purpose. Obama’s decision to cold shoulder the Dalai Lama last October not only damaged Tibetans but also diminished America’s moral standing. The effects will linger, even after the president meets with the Dalai Lama this Thursday.

Perhaps no one understands this better than Vaclav Havel, the playwright and political prisoner who became the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia. Havel declared himself bothered “much more” by President Obama’s treatment of the Dalai Lama last year than by Washington’s reversal on stationing a missile defense system in the Czech Republic. “It is only a minor compromise,” said Havel, “but exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

If dissidents make the connection between strategic objectives and human rights more readily than do many people in positions of power it is because dissidents understand, from their own experience, that doing nothing when confronted with a matter of principle has consequences even if they were not intended. Dissidents suffer the costs when democratic societies compromise, and are bolstered and safer when the same societies stand up for principle, and for them.

When the United States undermines the Dalai Lama, or stays on the sidelines while Iranians try to change their government, or looks the other way as the Kremlin perverts democratic institutions, there is indeed a trade-off. But it is not the one that officials seeking strategic breakthroughs intend.

Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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