One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the Obama presidency is that he has undermined virtually all of the few but nevertheless enduring foreign policy achievements of Jimmy Carter’s administration. But the latest example of the Obama administration’s shortsighted effort to slough off the vestiges of the past regardless of their merit is perhaps the most egregious.
The Egypt that Jimmy Carter inherited from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford was one that was eagerly trying to rid itself of Soviet domination. Carter, Cyrus Vance, and Zbigniew Brzezinski helped complete the process of midwifing a Cairo that was oriented toward the West and shepherding into existence the Camp David Accord that resulted in the normalization of Egypt’s relations with Israel. Today, Obama’s confused approach to Egypt has thrust it back into the Russian orbit. Similarly, the Obama administration’s attempts to transform Iran into a responsible and dominant regional actor have alienated the Sunni monarchies and driven them closer to Israel. But this rapprochement was achieved in spite of U.S. policy rather than as a result of it, and Washington now finds itself mistrusted by a variety of key actors in the Middle East. Finally, and perhaps most lamentably, the Obama administration has sacrificed one of the Carter White House’s proudest achievements – making human rights considerations a pillar of American grand strategy.
To hear Brzezinski tell it, regard for human rights was a secondary consideration for those who crafted American foreign policy before 1977. That’s not entirely accurate, but it is true that the Carter team did elevate the issue to prominence in otherwise unrelated dealings with foreign governments. This was a particularly effective tool with regard to bilateral relations with the Soviets. “I will not hide the fact that I thought there was some instrumental utility in our pursuit of human rights vis-à-vis the Soviet Union,” Brzezinski said several years after the Hammer and Sickle was furled for the last time. “And raising the issue of human rights pointed to one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system – namely, that it was a system based on oppression.”
The Republican and Democratic administrations that followed Carter’s apparently appreciated having this new diplomatic instrument in their toolbox. All administrations have, to one degree or another, elevated concern for human right and the repression of dissident elements inside repressive regimes to a place of deserved prominence. Barack Obama’s administration has squandered that legacy.
Obama chose to ignore what could have been a regime-toppling uprising in what came to be remembered as Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009. The president came into office with the intention of ushering in a thaw in relations with Iran and made repeated overtures to the country’s former president, the nakedly anti-Semitic and reckless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For fear of offending a regime that had taken to beating people in the streets, Obama could only muster that he was “deeply troubled” by the violence. Five days later, he issued a statement calling on Tehran to pull back from the brink, but made no effort to contend, as have past American presidents, that he stood with the demonstrators as they faced down an immoral and repressive brand of authoritarianism.
A similar rebellion in Venezuela that might have proved fatal to the throwback caudillos in Caracas was also a matter of little regard for this White House. There, a bloody rebellion in the streets only belatedly resulted in some attention from this administration. The handful of officials in Nicolas Maduro’s administration who were sanctioned as a result of their brutal attacks on Venezuelan demonstrators are today comfortable and secure in a pacified socialist paradise.
Barack Obama chose to ignore the plight of journalists and opposition figures in Russia in 2009 in favor of his “Reset,” a policy that now looks more like the appeasement of a revanchist autocrat than anything since the 1930s. Many of the figures that dared criticize the Kremlin who were lucky enough not to get a bullet in the back of the head today find themselves behind prison walls. Betrayed by a Washington that seemed to care for little more than a grand diplomatic victory to tout, the Russian opposition had to look outside Washington for inspiration and support. Today, Europe is again at war, and the dissidents who are subject to cautious retaliation from the regime in 2009 are today meeting their fates out in the open and within steps of the Kremlin walls.
The president who once declared that Bashar al-Assad “must go” now seems eager to entertain ways in which the West can work with him, or at least tacitly accept his authority, in order to address the larger threat to global stability that resulted from his feckless refusal to follow up on a self-imposed “red line” for action. Under Obama’s watch, the use of chemical weapons on civilians and combatants with impunity has become an ugly precedent.
The story is as familiar as it is nearly ubiquitous. Repression and authoritarianism are on the rise in countries like China, Turkey, and Burma. But it is this White House’s Cuba policy that is the most grossly contemptuous toward America’s legacy of championing human rights.
In service to the administration’s project of moving on from the Cold War and opening Cuba up to American business and tourism, this White House has gone to great lengths to sweep the Castro brothers’ human rights abuses under the rug.
The latest offense to the sensibilities of those who favor a human rights component to American foreign policy occurred on Wednesday when the Associated Press revealed that Barack Obama’s administration had no intention of inviting any Cuban dissidents to the opening of America’s first post-Revolution embassy in Havana on Friday. Lest the White House offend the repressive communist oligarchy in control of the island prison nation, the United States – once the shining city – will request that those who suffer under the regime’s totalitarian leaders kindly remain in the shadows.
“The Cuban opposition has occupied the center of U.S. policy toward the island since the nations cut diplomatic relations in 1961,” the AP reported. “The Cuban government labels its domestic opponents as traitorous U.S. mercenaries. As the two countries have moved to restore relations, Cuba has almost entirely stopped meeting with American politicians who visit dissidents during trips to Havana.”
It is one thing to unshackle American strategic planning from the obligations of the past, but it is quite another to consign the oppressed peoples of the world to enslavement and repression in pursuit of expedience. Posterity will not look kindly on Barack Obama’s determination to overlook human rights abuses in favor of his grander vision for America’s strategic priorities. And when they take full stock of the decades of legacy achievements he has squandered, Obama’s fellow Democrats will be equally nonplused by his conduct of foreign affairs.