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Not the Kind of Leadership We’re Looking For

Why is the State Department defending Malaysia in the wake of democratic crackdowns?

4:00 PM, Jul 8, 2011 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Secretary Clinton had nothing but glowing remarks for Malaysia’s leadership when she stopped there in November of last year.  “We already have a strong partnership based on common values like respect for cultural diversity, pluralism, religious tolerance… We know that Malaysia is a leader in this region…. [and is] increasingly being looked to as both a thought leader and a model globally,” Clinton said at the time.

Fast forward to yesterday’s State Department briefing and it looks increasingly difficult to portray the U.S.-Malaysia relationship as being based on "common values" -- especially when it comes to pluralism.

Associated Press reporter Matt Lee left State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland searching for words when he asked about the arrest of hundreds of opposition political activists over the last few days, especially those of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and now leader of the Malaysian opposition.

It’s worth taking a look at the back and forth:

LEE:  Speaking of ASEAN, which you raised twice now, a little less than a year ago, Secretary Clinton was in Malaysia, and she had a lot of praise for the Malaysian government and the Malaysian people as being kind of paragons of tolerance, and the idea that, you know, Islam is not antithetical to democracy.

In light of that and the high praise that she gave -- that she gave them, I'm wondering if you have any comment about what's happened there over the weekend with the arrest of hundreds of opposition supporters, particularly those linked to Anwar Ibrahim, whose name I'm -- if you're not familiar with it, you will be soon, because it is a dominant name in the U.S.-Malaysian relations often.

Do you have anything to say about these mass arrests, or the crackdown on the opposition in Malaysia?

MS. NULAND: Just to say that as we always do, we call for appropriate application of Malaysian rule of law, accountability, transparency in the way this is dealt with.

But let me get back to you with a little bit more fulsome statement later in the day.

LEE: You don't have -- this didn't rise to the level of anyone in -- in EAP thinking that it might be something of a--

MS. NULAND: I'm sure it did.

LEE: There might be --

MS. NULAND: But -- but let me -- let me make sure that --

LEE: There's no guidance there?

MS. NULAND: Let me -- let me make sure that we frame it in a way that really respects the conversation that we're having with Malaysia.

We’re still waiting for that guidance. Meanwhile, reports out of Burma last night had riot police surrounding the main office of Burma’s National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, preparing for a new crackdown on the democracy movement there. So the Obama administration can still make the case that Malaysia is being looked to as a model in the region, even as they stay silent in the face of backsliding on democracy, diversity, and pluralism.

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