In his speech today at the United Nations, President Obama continued his administration’s odd and somewhat schizophrenic policy with respect to freedom, human rights, and democracy.
In general, in principle, he is all for it. He said the United States “will continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity” though he also made clear that to him, this is not a “core interest” of the United States. He does mention in passing that we see “young people everywhere…who are eager to join the cause of eradicating extreme poverty, combating climate change, starting businesses, expanding freedom and leaving behind the old ideological battles of the past.” (Of course, one of those key ideological battles was precisely about freedom.) And Mr. Obama explains that “although we will be wary of efforts to impose democracy through military force, and will at times be accused of hypocrisy or inconsistency – we will be engaged in the region for the long haul. For the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.”
Now this is very general. How does it apply when we deal with actual American foreign policy in a particular country? It does not.
The president said in this speech that “America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
What did he offer the people of Iran, who live under a widely hated theocracy? He said, “We are not seeking regime change,” and in the Iran section of the speech did not utter the words freedom, democracy, or human rights. He concluded the Iran portion of the speech with this line: “Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential – in commerce and culture; in science and education.” Again, not a word about living in freedom–not even as an aspiration. So the obvious conclusion any Iranian must reach is that if the regime does a nuclear deal, Mr. Obama is content to see the Iranian people live under tyranny forever.
Similarly, in the section on Palestinians Mr. Obama said, “the Palestinian people have a right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state.” Security, dignity–but not freedom and democracy. This suggests a very unfortunate return to the policy of the Clinton administration, which was willing to hand a Palestinian state to Yasser Arafat, and a turn away from the Bush policy of saying that the nature of a Palestinian state and government is more important than its borders.
On Syria, the president said “nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists.” I suppose you can define “well being” to include freedom, but Syrians have lived under the vicious Assad dictatorship for decades and rose up against it. It would have been nice to say we hope to see them live in freedom some day.
On Egypt, Mr. Obama said that “Our over-riding interest throughout these past few years has been to encourage a government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people, and recognizes true democracy as requiring a respect for minority rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a strong civil society.” Would that that had been true. Instead, U.S. policy has been to support whoever was in power: Mubarak, then the SCAF, then Morsi, and now the military government. The president added that “we have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a democratic path.” That would be a first, for his administration has not previously linked democracy and military aid.
There’s no logic here. Why does aid to Egypt depend (well, we’ll see; but that’s what the president said) on progress toward democracy, but aid to the Palestinians does not? If “young people everywhere” want “expanding freedom,” presumably young people in Iran want it too–so why is freedom not even mentioned when the president discusses Iran?
This administration has from the start been allergic to the promotion of democracy as part of the dreaded “Freedom Agenda” of President Bush. Mr. Obama seems unable to speak at all without trying to blame his predecessor for something (and he did it again in is speech to the nation on Syria). Here, at the U.N., he said, “Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community, and with the countries and people of the region.” Forty countries were part of the multi-national force in Iraq, which was there under U.N. Security Council resolutions and whose purpose was to contribute to the maintenance of security in Iraq, including by preventing and deterring terrorism and protecting the territory of Iraq– making Mr. Obama’s statement offensive and ill-informed. It would be better if he stopped apologizing for things the United States has done, or in this case not done, and instead developed a coherent policy of supporting the expansion of freedom.