"Does Obama Believe in Human Rights?" asks Bret Stephens in today's Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the answer is a resounding "no." Citing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement on a visit to China earlier this year that human rights should not interfere with other pressing issues, Stephens writes indignantly, "It… takes a remarkable degree of cynicism – or perhaps cowardice – to treat human rights as something that ‘interferes' with America's purposes in the world, rather than as the very thing that ought to define them."
It takes a remarkable degree of cynicism – and chutzpah – for Bret Stephens to have written that sentence. This is the same Bret Stephens who, two years ago, in this tendentious column, defended the Bush administration against "inflated, imprecise and tendentious allegations of torture." Waterboarding, Stephens allowed, was unpleasant business, but did not "properly" qualify as torture.
Stephens is nauseated that the Obama administration is engaging regimes such as Burma. He does not bother to mention that the great Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi supports the administration's policy of engaging the junta running her country, or that human rights activists have long been divided over whether sanctions against Burma help or hinder the expansion of freedom. There is no inherent conflict between engagement and the promotion of human rights, just as isolating a country (see Cuba) doesn't necessarily hamper an authoritarian ruler's ability to stay in power and suppress political freedom.
Does this mean Obama's record on human rights has been perfect? Of course not. He has spoken forcefully – but acted otherwise – on indefinite detention and the treatment of detainees. He apparently refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in order not to rankle China's leaders. In this as on other matters, he has made it clear that he is a cautious realist, not a crusading idealist.
But those who pine for a more crusading figure should think back to the Bush era. They should also pause to consider whether any US President has ever made human rights the thing that defines America's purpose in the world, and whether - if Obama opted for such a course - it would be appropriate. As Stephen Walt usefully points out at the Politico, which invited various analysts to assess whether Obama is "punting" on human rights: "Of course he is. No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first. And given that the U.S. record on this issue looks has been tarnished by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, forced rendition, "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture), extra-judicial killings (aka "targeted assassinations"), our reaction to the Goldstone Report, and the thousands dead as a result of the invasion of Iraq, I'd say a bit of humility on this front was probably in order."