On Monday, President Obama arrived on a presidential visit to Ethiopia. The trip to the east African state raised eyebrows, even among President Obama’s allies on the American left.
"The timing of President Obama's . . . travel to Ethiopia could not be worse, or more troubling,” said Jeff Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a couple of weeks prior to the trip. President Obama’s visit “comes in the aftermath of an election that has been universally decried as a sham and a mere rubber stamp for the long-ruling governing party. If President Obama truly wanted to stand behind his strong human rights rhetoric, and behind the values of democracy and respect for human rights, then visiting Ethiopia is not the way to live up to those professed ideals,” he added. The Open Society Foundations and World Movement for Democracy later joined the RFK Center in releasing a letter raising questions about the president’s Ethiopia sojourn.
Making matters worse, while speaking at a news conference in the Ethiopian capital, President Obama – in the words of the New York Times – “lashed out” at several of the Republican candidates to succeed him. First, he bemoaned “a general pattern [in the election] we’ve seen that would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.”
The Times continues:
Mr. Obama went on to note Mr. Trump’s assertion that Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was not a genuine war hero. Mr. Obama, who defeated Mr. McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, said it was offensive to “challenge the heroism of Mr. McCain, somebody who endured torture and conducted himself with exemplary patriotism.”
But the president also made it a broader indictment of the Republican Party, many of whose leaders denounced Mr. Trump’s remarks as well. “The Republican Party is shocked, and yet that arises out of a culture where those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets,” Mr. Obama said. “And I recognize that when outrageous statements are made about me, a lot of the same people who were outraged when it’s made about Mr. McCain were pretty quiet.”
Mr. Obama said candidates should not “play fast and loose” with comments like that. “The American people deserve better,” he said. “Certainly presidential debates deserve better. In 18 months, I’m turning over the keys. I want to make sure I’m turning over the keys to somebody who’s serious about the serious problems the country faces and the world faces.”
There is something more than a little unseemly about a U.S. president attacking, essentially, the democratic process, while visiting a repressive, undemocratic state. Obama’s slap against conservative talk radio, made in a country where the media are not free, was particularly repellent. What message does Obama's diatribite send to Ethiopia’s leaders – and the country’s people – about how the leader of the world’s leading democracy feels about our system of government? He sure doesn't make democracy sound all that great.
If President Obama truly felt compelled to go after the general messiness (and occasionally silliness and dishonesty) inherent to democratic elections, he should have at least waited until he was in a country that actually holds them.