(Here is a sneak peek at an op-ed I submitted. I’ll post an update if it makes it into print.)
One day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, a masked gunman shot down human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov on the streets of Moscow. The gunman attacked Markelov in broad daylight, also killing journalist Anastasia Baburova, just moments after Markelov concluded a press conference.
When terrified dissidents in Moscow, Tehran, or Rangoon look to Washington for help, what can they expect from President Obama? If his inaugural address is any indication, the answer is ‘not much’. Even though every Democratic president since Truman has pledged, in his first oration, to come to the aid of those who share our commitment to democracy and human rights, Obama did not. Instead, he offered dissidents the cold comfort of knowing that the their oppressors – “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” – “are on the wrong side of history.” The 44th President also reached out to those oppressors, saying that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Certainly, it is wise to seek a cooperative and peaceful approach to liberalization. Yet America must do more than wait patiently while activists like Markelov are gunned down in broad daylight.
In all fairness to President Obama, partisan politics has handcuffed his ability to address the subject of democracy and human rights. Ever since George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, in which he declared, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression,” more and more Democrats have dismissed such idealism as a disguise for everything they resent about Bush’s conduct of the war on terror. Obama himself catered to this notion, observing in the summer of 2007, “People around the world have heard a great deal of late about freedom on the march. Tragically, many have come to associate this with war, torture, and forcibly imposed regime change.”
Just a few weeks later, the future President tempered his criticism, granting that Bush’s principles were correct, even if their implementation was deficient. In a speech delivered in Chicago, Obama said, “We have heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom – that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.” Then, surprisingly, he said, “I agree. But this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box.” This was the last time that candidate Obama spoke of his faith in America’s democratic mission.
Obama might have arrived at his inauguration without having to confront this issue again, if not for the editors of the Washington Post, who challenged the President-Elect in a pre-inaugural interview to define his position on democracy promotion. Obama responded that democracy promotion needs to be “a central part of our foreign policy.” Taken literally, this suggests that democracy promotion will serve as an animating force behind Obama’s foreign policy. Yet the vague description of any principle or policy as “central” is also how skillful politicians feign agreement with their audience without making any promises. The fine print of the answer that Obama gave to the Post suggests that the latter analysis is correct.
The essential difference between George Bush’s and Barack Obama’s thinking on the subject of democracy promotion is that that Bush considered it essential to our national security and to our aspiration for victory in the war on terror. In contrast, Obama tends to identify the spread of democratic values and institutions as something desirable, akin to the alleviation of poverty and hunger, yet related only indirectly to our national security. In his Second Inaugural, Bush identified the democratic deficit in the Muslim world as the “deepest source” of terrorism. He said,
“For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”
Obama had a very different message in his inaugural: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” This is language of realism, as practiced by Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and other leading statesman. It is not a school of thought to be dismissed lightly. This school approaches both cooperation and conflict as outcomes that reflect underlying interests, rather than ideas. Obama’s language suggests that he does not see the war on terror as a war of ideas, in which victory for both the United States and for the people of the Muslim world rests on a convergence of values. When President Obama spoke of victory in his inaugural address, he cast our values as an inspiration, rather than a force that can shape the battlefield. He said, “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint…for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
President Obama’s thinking on the subject of democracy promotion will influence decisions that have a profound impact on our national security. Will the President continue our drawdown in Iraq regardless of whether its nascent democratic order remains viable? Will the escalation of our commitment to Afghanistan be premised on the belief that democracy is essential to the defeat of the Taliban?
Undoubtedly, there is much to criticize about how the Bush administration implemented its democracy agenda. One cannot fault Obama the candidate for his efforts to exploit this vulnerability. Yet Obama is now commander-in-chief. He has the opportunity to return to the responsible position he embraced earlier in his campaign, when he affirmed that “America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom – that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.” This would send a powerful message to the American people and to the world that democracy promotion is not an artifact of Republican or neo-conservative thinking, but a reflection of the revolutionary ideals that have made America the undisputed leader of the free world.
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