As he said on occasion, George W. Bush was content to let history be his judge. Barack Obama’s associates do not, to put it mildly, exude that kind of quiet confidence. They don’t appear to believe posterity will prove their judgment sound, so they have instead elected to theatrically rend garments in the hope that their display will distract from posterity’s verdict.
The early days of the Trump administration were typified by the near ubiquity of “former Obama administration officials” in the press. Whether they were providing blind quotes to reporters or waxing contemplative about their own sagely conduct of American affairs, Team Obama seemed keen to attack every deviation from what they determined to be orthodox U.S. foreign policy. Their outrage over Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s latest comments is only the most recent hyperventilation.
“Tillerson says U.S. no more will condition foreign relationships on countries adopting US values such as human rights,” read the Associated Press headline. This team Obama could not abide.
“Brutal thugs are smiling,” bewailed Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. “Human rights are not only US values. They are universal. Trump/Tillerson approach is [a] green light for repression.”
“I guess [the] U.S. is stepping down as leader of the free world,” Obama’s former ambassador to the Russian Federation, Michael McFaul, lamented.
Even a handful of reporters felt compelled to express their profound sense of shame. “If Exxon had a foreign policy this would be it,” asserted Politico’s chief international affairs columnist, Susan Glasser.
These reactions and others resulted from a tendentious reading of Tillerson’s comments by the AP. The confusion is evident in how other news outlets reported on the secretary’s comments: “Sec. of State Tillerson says American values must be separate from American foreign policy, even as they ‘guide’ it,” ABC News declared without any apparent concern for that sentence’s aggravating contradictions.
A modest effort to dig past the headline revealed that Tillerson’s comments were, in fact, rather banal: “In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson told his colleagues. “It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
“It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines,” Tillerson continued. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over.” America’s chief diplomat added that, in some cases, the United States will condition its bilateral relationships with other states based on “certain actions as to how they treat people.”
This is better known as “The Obama Doctrine.” Don’t take my word for it; take President Obama’s.
“I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values,” Obama told The Atlantic’s Jeffry Goldberg in a 2016 interview auspiciously headlined, “The Obama Doctrine.” He continued: “Having said that, I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy.”
And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. [Emphasis added]
This wasn’t just talk. Obama entered office determined to shun what he regarded as his predecessor’s heedlessly ideological conduct of American affairs abroad, even if that meant surrendering his party’s legacy as a champion of human rights and democracy promotion.
Obama broke precedent when he perched himself next to Raul Castro at a 2015 Summit of the Americas. There, he suffered through an unhinged rant by the Cuban dictator attacking American policy toward Latin America. Obama pursued a thaw in bilateral relations with Cuba, requesting no reciprocity in the form of liberalization by the regime in Havana. Indeed, Cuba cracked down on dissidents ahead of Obama’s historic visit to the island nation, where he stood for a photo op flanked by a memorial to the murderous guerilla fighter, Che Guevara.
Obama’s lethargic approach to the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations inside Cuba’s ally Venezuela can be attributed to the former president’s bloodless style of realpolitik. Only months after the pro-democratic protests had been put down in 2014 did Obama’s administration move to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials.
Similarly, Obama spoke out of turn when he said both that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must step down and that his use of chemical weapons represented a “red line” for the United States. Instead, Assad’s regime survived the Obama administration, but hundreds of thousands of Syrians did not. Many of them were gassed to death, either as a result of the regime’s use of nerve agents or simple chlorine gas, which the Obama White House decided not to consider a chemical weapon. That little fiction was necessary to support another: the idea that Russia successfully negotiated the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria.
That legitimization of Moscow led indirectly to its muscle-flexing both in Syria (where it intervened militarily and committed innumerable human rights violations) and Ukraine (where it invaded and annexed territory). That is to say nothing of Obama’s emboldening of the Kremlin to continue its own inhumane crackdown on dissidents and the conspicuous murder of opposition figures.
These sacrifices were made in observance of Barack Obama’s foremost foreign policy objective: bringing the Islamic Republic of Iran in from the cold. Toward that end, Obama was silent when the Basij militia crushed Iran’s “green revolutionaries” in 2009. Toward that end, Obama released Iranian prisoners classified as threats to American national security. Toward that end, Obama unfroze $100 billion in Iranian assets and lifted sanctions on the regime. In response, Iran has cracked down on expressions of youthful rebellion, increased the tempo of executions, and stifled dissent among Iranian intellectuals with a campaign of arrests.
It was the Carter administration and its National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who enshrined support for human rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy. As Brzezinski noted, human rights promotion represented another tool in the diplomatic toolbox: “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,” Carter’s NSA recalled. “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.” Every successive Democratic presidency adhered to this view. All, that is, except for Barack Obama.
In their desperation to varnish their dubious record on American foreign affairs, the Obama administration’s diplomatic professionals are tripping over themselves to cast every action by their successors in a negative light. In the process, they expose not just their unbecoming penchant for attention-seeking but their staggering incompetence.