The Obama approach to world politics--engage, apologize, avoid friction, be humble, reach out to previously scorned tyrannical regimes--is being criticized nowadays on pragmatic grounds. A record of 10 months shows this modest approach has brought modest if any returns. Low costs, the president's defenders argue, and low risks, so it has been worth trying, even if the gains have been small.
But the Obama approach has a moral cost that is usually overlooked and that is very high for our country and for embattled fighters for human rights everywhere. It is true that we live in a Westphalian state system, but time--decades of human rights activism--has undermined the view that what a state does inside its own borders, to its own citizens, is no one else's business. Yet this administration appears devoted to that older view, and its lack of enthusiasm for human rights policy is already quite clear. One could not escape the whiff of disappointment, even annoyance, emerging from administration ranks when Iranians took to the streets after the June election there was stolen. It seemed the administration was actually irritated that those shenanigans might interfere with starting a new diplomatic track.
On his Asia trip the president consorted, at the ASEAN meeting, with the prime minister of the repressive regime in Burma, General Thein Sein, just as he had met at an OAS meeting with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Under a policy of promoting human rights and democracy, the United States should be focusing its policies toward such countries on what goes on within them, on supporting democracy activists and promoting the expansion of freedom, on opposing repressive regimes and working when we can to undermine them. But the approach Obama is taking is the almost inevitable product of elevating multilateral diplomacy, for you don't conduct diplomacy with demonstrators and bloggers, much less with political prisoners. You conduct it with the guy across the table, behind the placard that reads "Iran" or "Myanmar" or "Egypt."
True, it ought to read something like "Ayatollah's regime, hated by Iranian people," or "Representative of vicious Venezuelan dictator," but that won't happen outside political cartoons satirizing the United Nations. Multilateral diplomacy means small talk with torturers, tea with dictators, negotiations with regimes that survive through sheer brutal repression--and it means putting such unpleasant facts aside to gather U.N. votes and seek consensus.
That's the path the Obama administration has chosen, and the real societies that those placards supposedly represent are too often forgotten. A great nation like the United States has many and varied interests, and we need both to do business with tyrants and to engage constantly in multilateral diplomacy. But we need to remember that the people who really own those nameplates that say "Syria" or "Myanmar" are absent--the best of them sometimes in prison. We need to recall that multilateral diplomacy is not morally cost-free. The Obama administration's disengagement from human rights advocacy and its embrace of multilateralism are already proving that.
America's relations with complex Middle Eastern states such as Egypt are often difficult. Egypt is a combination of republican forms (a presidency, a parliament, political parties, a judiciary) and authoritarian reality where the security forces, the ruling party, and above all President Mubarak dominate the state and decide who gets what. For the United States, which values Egypt as a peace partner of Israel and as the reliable operator of the Suez Canal, Egypt's internal problems can create tensions we might otherwise wish to avoid. But we cannot, if we mean to understand what is really happening in that country: How popular or unpopular is the government and the ruling party, what would happen if there were free elections, does any of the new foreign investment trickle down below the super-rich, what will happen when the octogenarian Mubarak is gone?
During most of the Bush administration, human rights and democracy in Egypt were on the front burner. The administration was concerned that instead of laying the foundation for a stable democratic future, Mubarak was in effect building a two-party system that consisted of his ruling party and a single alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, which might gain power when he was gone. Thus came the American pressure for a democratic opening, so as to begin preparing for Egypt after Mubarak.
But as the Bush administration undertook the Annapolis Conference and began to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal during our final year in office, the "real" Egypt disappeared. No longer did we concentrate on poverty, or illiteracy, or oppression in that land of 80 million. Instead we saw only the Egypt that attended conferences and engaged in diplomacy--the Egypt of cabinet ministers and official spokesmen. "Egypt" became a placard behind which diplomats sat, not a real country. It became a U.N. vote instead of a society--to the great relief of its rulers and the disappointment of democratic activists there.
Given President Bush's lack of enthusiasm for the U.N. and his deep devotion to democracy, this pattern was an exception. But whenever rounds of multilateral diplomacy erupted, the risk of countries becoming placards arose as well. Nowadays, with the Obama administration's dedication to multilateralism, real countries are in danger of disappearing altogether.
Take President Obama's trip to China, where he saw no "real" Chinese at all--just a handpicked audience of party loyalists. No dissenters, no religious organizers, no democratic activists, all of whom we would wish to support if we cared about the real Chinese society more than the voice and vote of China's rulers. In fact, many such Chinese citizens were detained or muzzled during the president's visit, making his trip a real setback for democracy in China. In the case of Egypt, the Obama administration welcomed Mubarak (who had avoided Washington during most of the Bush years), but has cut funding for democracy and human rights programs helping real Egyptians. And as to Iran, funding for key programs to help the Iranian people free themselves has been cut while the administration seeks out talks with the country's increasingly despised rulers.
Syria is another excellent case. President Bush was disgusted by the Assad regime's oppression of the Syrian people as well as its support for terrorism, interference in Lebanon, and encouragement of jihadist attacks on Americans in Iraq. But George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East peace negotiator, has visited there twice already, and other high-ranking officials have visited as well. Why? Because the real Syria doesn't matter right now; all that matters is Syria's role in the "peace process," which is what Mitchell was there to discuss. Small matters like the fate of political prisoners are not on the agenda when multilateral diplomacy beckons.
We do not have the luxury to deal only with democracies, of course, but the record of the Reagan administration provides a lesson in how to deal with dictatorships. Reagan met with every Soviet leader who survived long enough for a summit. Negotiations were constant--on strategic issues, regional issues, trade, and everything else. But simultaneously Reagan stated his moral judgments loudly and clearly: that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" that would end on the "ash heap of history." So a man like Anatoly Sharansky, in a cell in the Gulag, understood fully not only Reagan's heart, but also his political analysis and his ultimate objectives.
Dealing with dictators was accepted as a necessity of world politics in the Reagan and George W. Bush years, and there was plenty of it, but exactly for that reason both presidents felt it critical to make our moral position clear. Those regimes were the ones who needed to apologize, not the United States; the end of those regimes was something we desired, because of our belief in peace and freedom; and the promotion of democracy was our moral duty and our political strategy. We sat across the table time after time from those foreign ministers and generals representing tyrannical regimes, but we never forgot that they did not speak for their own populations. The placards said they represented the USSR or China or military regimes in Latin America or Asia, but we never forgot that behind those placards lay real societies where millions were seeking freedom--and looking to the United States for moral and practical support.
The costs of the Obama approach cannot be measured, then, only by his failure to get agreements over Iran sanctions or economic coordination or assistance in Afghanistan. They must be measured as well by the substantial abandonment of American support for human rights and democracy, a casualty of the "multilateral engagement" policy. Next time the president looks across a negotiating table, he should use his imagination--and see past the tyrant with the placard, to the people being oppressed. The president may not be able to free them, but he can avoid the terrible spectacle of appearing to forget them.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.