No one who is familiar with the title "White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer" would dare imagine that the men and women who speak for presidents can be counted on to speak the truth.
But those who might want, for reasons of partisanship or ideology, to imagine the end of the Bush-Cheney era ushered in more frank and responsible White House communications will surely be disabused of that foolish notion by the response of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to the latest WikiLeak.
On Sunday, Gibbs achieved the rare combination of utter shamelessness and utter shamefulness when he claimed that by releasing classified diplomatic communications "WikiLeaks has put at risk…the cause of human rights."
Reasonable people may debate the way in which WikiLeaks obtains and releases classified documents. But for Gibbs to try and claim that transparency and openness pose broad threats to the cause of human rights—in the face of all of the compromises of US administrations over the past several decades—is intellectually and practically dishonest.
The point here is not to suggest that the United States is always on the wrong side of human rights debates. That’s not the case. There have been times, many times, when US administrations and the State Department have attempted to promote international human rights. But those attempts must always be seen in the context of military, intelligence-gathering and, especially, free-trade policies that dismiss human rights concerns.
The Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama administrations have all promoted, implemented and maintained trade policies that are designed to permit multinational corporations to disregard traditional human rights complaints, as well as demands for environmental justice, protection for indigenous peoples and the removal of barriers to the organization of free trade unions.
When Clinton and Republican leaders in the US House and Senate extended permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China in 2000, they were informed by leading human rights activists from around the world that doing so would harm the interests of union organizers, democracy campaigners and religious and ethnic minorities in China and countries—such as Tibe—that it occupies. The regular renegotiation of trade deals had given the United States leverage to pressure China on human rights issues; extending permanent MFN status to China severely reduced that leverage.
The same thing has happened in Latin America and Africa, as the United States has negotiated and implemented permanent free-trade relationships that make it dramatically harder to effectively challenge human rights abuses.
Gibbs knows this. So, too, does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was an ardent proponent of free-trade deals when her husband was president.
For either them—or for anyone else in the upper ranks of the Obama administration—to suggest that the United States is engaged in any sort of international human rights crusade is disingenuous. Our international trade deals tie the hands of US officials, reduce their leverage and generally diminish their ability to apply pressure on behalf of democracy activists, labor organizers or environmental justice campaigners. At the same time, military and intelligence agreements further diminish efforts to protect democracy and aid ethnic and religious minorities in oppressive states. Thus, by choice and design, previous administrations and the current one have made the United States a frequently ineffectual player when it comes to advancing human rights.
Yet, Gibbs now condemns the WikiLeaks disclosures as a serious threat to the cause, claiming that "such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals and people around the world who come to the United Sta