Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.
FP: Elliott Abrams, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about America's human rights policy under Obama.
What is Obama’s human rights policy exactly? The recent visit to the U.S. of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was kind of illuminating in this context, yes?
Abrams: It seems clear to me that the Obama Administration has no human rights policy. That is, while in some inchoate sense they would like respect for human rights to grow around the world, as all Americans would, they have no actual policy to achieve that goal-- and they subordinate it to all their other policy goals.
In the Middle East, for example, they have decided to go for an Israeli-Palestinian deal at all costs. That means our relations with Egypt (and Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc.) are all about Israeli-Palestinian matters, not about Egypt itself as a country. Human rights and democracy in Egypt become a small issue, a side issue.
The Mubarak visit was illuminating, as was the President's choice of Cairo to give his speech a few months ago, for Obama pretty much forgot about freedom. He did not utter the word (or words like democracy, human rights, free elections) sitting there next to Mubarak at the White House. Democracy activists in Egypt have been abandoned.
Clinton's remarks about China are another example. Mitchell's visits to Syria are yet another: dead silence about human rights, smiles at dictators. That's the norm.
FP: What are the consequences of this lack of a human rights policy?
Abrams: There are four major ones.
First, we have a foreign policy that does not reflect the greatest ideals and principles of America. America was not founded to improve health care or housing; it was founded for freedom. The "shining city on a hill" was not supposed to be a model for urban planning or social policy, it was supposed to be a model of liberty and self-government.
Second, we let down the people fighting for human rights and for democracy and who look to America for help. The help can be moral or verbal rather than material support, but when we refuse to give them even that we abandon them to dictators who seek to suppress them. What message could Egyptians have taken, for example, from the Mubarak visit to Washington when the President didn't even say the word freedom or democracy or human rights?
Third, we weaken the cause of human rights globally. That cause always has enemies who seek to rule in place of the people, and they are sometimes restrained or defeated by people fighting for freedom-- sometimes with American support. When that support dries up, the oppressors are more likely to win.
And fourth, our own freedom is safer in a world of democracies, so by abandoning the cause we actually help create a world where America is less safe.
FP: What is the Obama administration afraid of when it comes to speaking about freedom and democracy? Is there the leftist seed here that America should apologize to the world rather than teach it anything?
Abrams: I think there are two explanations for Obama policy. The first is that they associate the freedom agenda and the promotion of democracy with President Bush, so they reject it. The desire to dissociate from a previous Administration is understandable, but not when it comes to human rights. Promotion of human rights was also Carter policy and Clinton policy, in some ways, so what they are actually abandoning is decades of foreign policy consensus.
The second explanation is the one you suggest, left-wing politics. These apology tours suggest a view that America has been a source for trouble, violence, oppression and not an inspiration for freedom. It's a version of the old MccGovernite view that we are a bad country and the more we do in the world the worse off everyone will be. Reagan won in 1980 in part because he did not believe that, and the American people don't believe it; they believe we are the greatest influence for good on the face of the earth. And they are right.
FP: What is it that Obama just doesn’t understand? And why doesn’t he understand it? Is it an ignorance and inexperience? Or is it also just a destructive ideology? Or both?
Abrams: I think it's mostly ideology, the long-time view of the left wing of the Democratic Party, which he represents. It is impossible for him and his advisers, it appears, to imagine that the more powerful and active in the world America is, the better off we and the world will be. American power remains today what it was in the Second World War and the Cold War: the greatest force for freedom in the world. They seem to have a hard time with that notion.
Hillary Clinton recently espoused a view of human rights that we really haven't heard since it was a Soviet argument during the Cold War: that we need a "broad" definition of human rights that doesn't just focus on freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or free elections, or religious freedom, but includes better housing or the right to a job. That is pure ideology, and it means the AID approach to human rights takes over: we press dictatorships to build more schools, but we don't press them to allow freedom of thought in those schools. We build roads and forget about free elections.
But there is also an element of incompetence here. I'm not sure Obama or Jim Jones or Hillary Clinton fully realizes they have more or less destroyed the effectiveness of the democracy directorate at the NSC and the democracy bureau at State. I imagine none of them issued an order saying "destroy that place." It has happened because they have paid no attention and have allowed real ideologues to seize pieces of the turf and undermine the work that used to be done in those offices-- going back to Carter days in the 1970s. Human rights activists around the world don't really know where to turn in the US Government these days to get a friendly ear and some help.
FP: A recent piece in the Washington Post noted that the only country in the world with which the U.S. has worse relations since Obama took office is Israel. Why do you think this is? Would it be fair to say that there is a strain of anti-Semitism in the Obama administration? A black pastor recently reflected on this issue. Your thoughts?
Abrams: I don't think anti-Semitism has anything to do with it at all, and some of the key people promoting Obama's policy are Jews. No, that isn't the explanation. I think it is partly ideology, once again: the old Leftist view that Israel is the source of the world's troubles and is an aggressive, militarized state. Support for Israel in the Democratic Party and among liberals and leftists is far lower than it is among Republicans and conservatives.
The Right is simply more pro-Israel than the Left. Obama also seems to believe that the Arab position regarding Israel is the result of bad conduct on Israel's part, and will change if that conduct (such as settlement activity) stops. But in truth the real problem isn't any particular conduct by Israel, it is the fact that most Arabs have yet to make peace with the idea that Israel exists, and has a right to exist forever, as a Jewish state in the middle of the Middle East.
The President also seems to think that distancing the US from Israel will gain us points with Muslims around the world. That's an ignoble position-- abandoning an ally in the hope that some other people will smile at us more. It will also not work.
A final part of it I attribute to the accident of who are some of the personalities involved. Rahm Emanuel seems to think he knows Israel very well, and that the way to treat that country and its democratically-elected government is the way he treats all opponents in politics: by attacking and attacking. I have little doubt he urged the President to pick a fight with Prime Minister Netanyahu early and publicly, which the President then did. And George Mitchell seems to be clinging to the view he expressed in the Mitchell report of 2001, that "settlement expansion" is an absolutely critical issue in moving toward peace in the Middle East.
FP: Overall, what would you say is the best human rights policy for the U.S. to pursue? Why? What President, in your estimation, pursued an admirable and effective human rights policy and should be held up as an example?
Abrams: Look, the United States Government is not an NGO and we must always balance the many interests we have: economic and financial, commercial, military and security, human rights and the expansion of freedom. There will be many cases where we cannot do what we'd like and where realpolitik must govern our behavior; for example, I don't know anyone who's in favor of invading China to free Tibet. But that's a good example: what President Bush did do was to meet repeatedly with the Dalai Lama, including at the White House, to show exactly what his real views were, and make sure we had programs in place to help Tibetans.
Two presidents pursued human rights policies that were serious and effective, Reagan and George W. Bush. They understood that American support for human rights activists is a moral imperative for us and also makes the world safer for us. Under Reagan the huge roll-back of military governments and dictatorships began, from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil to Central America, from Taiwan to the Philippines to South Korea. President Bush met repeatedly with human rights activists and freedom fighters from all over the world, to give them encouragement and protection and to advance their cause. Under both these presidents, we had active NSC and State Department offices pushing the regional, geographic offices to do more for human rights.
What you need is a clear instruction from the very top that the President cares about this and demands action and results. It has to be clear that the President sees the support for human rights as critical to his Administration and indeed his view of American and the world. And you need political appointees in the key jobs who also believe it and will act on it all the time, seeing it as central to their jobs and not some annoying addition to their "real" responsibilities. In all this, the Obama Administration is failing- and failing very badly.
FP: Elliott Abrams, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.