Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Obama & Human Rights

Bret Stephens has an article in today's Wall Street Journal called, "Does Obama Believe in Human Rights?" In it he makes the argument that the president is basically unconcerned with advancing human rights, and sees that issue as interfering with his policy of engagement. I've been extremely critical of Obama's foreign policy. In my view, engagement appears to be a euphemism for naivety, pointless talk, wishful thinking, and appeasement. But I have to take issue with the logic behind Stephen's criticism of Obama on the human rights front, particularly this assertion,

It also 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.
I find that position remarkably obtuse. The primary purpose of the U.S. government is, or should be, to advance the interests of the United States and its people, not to promote human rights for the rest of the world. I'm not sure how Stephens can deny that promoting human rights could sometimes interfere with American interests. There are numerous examples, of which China is an obvious one. How does it serve U.S. purposes to attack China on human rights at the possible expense of valuable economic ties? Is it the primary purpose of the U.S. to help people in China achieve more rights? If it is, it shouldn't be. I don't want a president who thinks helping the people of China is more important than maintaining relations that benefit America.

I have no problem with the U.S. promoting human rights when it makes sense to do so. Often such an emphasis correlates with our foreign policy goals, and is therefore a worthy aim. But the U.S. government shouldn't be a purely altruistic entity that puts human rights above all else. It's a national government, not a human rights organization. If the promotion of human rights clashes with American interests in a particular case, then the issue of rights should take a back seat. Bret Stephen's notion that human rights should "define" America's purpose in the world, is every bit as naive and dangerous as any of President Obama's ill-conceived foreign policy ideas.

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