James P. Rubin on Obama and Human Rights

Although President Obama's address to the nation served its main purpose—articulating the national-security rationale for the use of force in Afghanistan—there was one unfortunate disconnect. Obama did not link his powerful rhetoric about America as a unique global power that believes "right makes might" to his argument for the surge in troops. The moral imperative for defeating the Taliban and its heinous ideology went unmentioned.

America has both an indispensable role in protecting the world from Al Qaeda and a noble purpose that should be stated aloud: to defeat the Islamist extremists whose barbarism has done such damage to innocent Afghans and Pakistanis alike. Preventing the return to power of a Taliban regime that terrorized its own people and allowed Osama bin Laden to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks on America is a mission of which our troops and our country can be proud.

Obama's omission of the moral dimension reflects a larger trend. Over the past year, as the main contours of the new administration's foreign policy have been established, the principles of democratic values have been too often set aside. Big changes were surely needed to recover from the damage wrought by the Bush administration. And those crucial changes in substance and style—on global warming, Guantánamo and treatment of prisoners, respect for international law, cancellation of unnecessary missile defenses in Eastern Europe—have won back lost support and admiration for the United States among friends and allies. Washington has succeeded in restoring the international partnerships necessary to confront complex global challenges. But by putting a premium on listening, not lecturing, and by injecting a corrective dose of pragmatism, an impression has been left that America's historic support for the spread of democratic values has diminished.

Certainly, the Bush presidency bequeathed to Obama a weakened and scorned America. But in righting the listing ship of state, our support for democratic values, long associated with the Democratic Party, must not be thrown overboard. Steering the right course between principle and pragmatism is no easy challenge. But at least since President John F. Kennedy's call on Americans to bear any burden in the pursuit of freedom, Democrats from Carter to Clinton have tried.

A good example is China. Not so long ago, a Democratic Congress voted to revoke most-favored-nation trading status for China primarily because of rampant human-rights abuses. The first President Bush vetoed that bill, which was one reason his administration was labeled "realist." When President Clinton took office, he didn't link trade with China to human rights—much to the chagrin of the current speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi—but he did make Chinese human-rights practices a prime topic of discussion even as Beijing was brought into the World Trade Organization and bilateral relations were improved. Indeed, when speaking uncensored to the Chinese people on his visit there, he declared the communist government to be on the "wrong side of history."

The second President Bush elevated democratic values and human rights to an even higher plane. Not only did he make the building of democracy in the Middle East his after-the-fact justification for the invasion of Iraq, but his second Inaugural Address also declared the pursuit of freedom and democracy as the main mission of the United States abroad. Of course, his strategy of democracy-by-invasion soon foundered in the chaos of an Iraqi civil war. Democracy promotion was then further discredited by Bush's insistence on elections in the Palestinian territories—over the objections of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments—which led to a victory for the terrorist group Hamas and a huge new obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

At home, the cause of democracy became a partisan struggle too. It is worth recalling that at the height of their hubris, Republican legislators waved purple fingers (signaling Iraq's free elections) in the face of Democratic members who had legitimate doubts about the wisdom of Bush's war policy. Along with the huge sacrifices in blood, treasure, and respect associated with the Iraq debacle, that State of the Union spectacle is surely one reason many Democrats no longer see the cause of pursuing freedom abroad the same way. Ironically, despite the fact that President Clinton won substantial international praise for his moral intervention to save 1 million Kosovar Albanians from slaughter, somehow being called a Nixonian realist is a compliment in Democrat-dominated Washington these days.

Unfortunately, in a number of judgment calls this past year, the principle of democratic values has fallen victim to this bitter legacy. Whether it was avoiding an Oval Office visit by the Dalai Lama, not demanding an opportunity to promote human rights during the president's recent visit to China, or not pressing for the release of jailed dissidents there, a practical decision was made that U.S. concerns about the economy, global warming, and nonproliferation took precedence in the relationship with China. In the case of Burma, there was a possibility that dialogue with the repressive junta might succeed where the previous policy of isolation had failed. And since the Bush Middle East democracy initiative was in tatters, why not shore up relations with moderate Arab states like Egypt, regardless of crackdowns on opposition activists? Sudan, of all places, has seen a similar calculation. Since most of the mass murder has already been committed in Darfur, why not be practical and work with Khartoum? The government there does have the ability (but does it have the will?) to improve the situation, never mind that its president has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Most wrenching of all has been the Obama administration's response to the opposition movement in Iran. There are legitimate reasons to avoid being seen as interfering in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic. Why risk complicating the already complicated nuclear negotiations, whose outcome is so crucial to security in the Persian Gulf? After having labeled Iran part of an Axis of Evil and pushed for regime change there, it isn't easy for the United States to pursue diplomacy while simultaneously standing on the side of democracy activists massing in the streets. But simply saying that the world is bearing witness to the tragedy there—even while reformers and opposition supporters risk their lives in the streets and the prisons of Iran's capital—is not enough.

The point is not that the new administration has made a practical calculation in some of these tough calls. The problem is that it's done so in all of them. There was a time when presidents gained political strength from upholding democratic values. But it's now seen as smart politics to be a "realist." And that is the real tragedy. In this way, some Democrats are allowing the failures of George W. Bush to tarnish what used to be one of the party's foreign-policy strengths.

Some also worry about America living in a glass house. The history of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo does require some effort to put our own house in order if we are to credibly challenge the human-rights practices of others. But the new administration has made an admirable start on this front. We don't have to wait until Guantánamo is finally closed to denounce Iran's government for imprisoning the parents of Iranian students in the United States who criticize their government on Facebook.

Our power and our values cannot be separated. More than any other country on earth, America has been committed to principles in foreign affairs. On peace, think Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn; on human rights and democracy, remember Nobel Peace Prize winners Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Nelson Mandela blessing the United States for support during the dark days of the Cold War and apartheid. And even on free trade, there is the World Bank, the IMF, GATT, and the World Trade Organization, none of which would have existed without American leadership. America's vital role in the world—its power—reflects these principles. To deny them is to weaken us and empower those who would see the United States become just another rational actor on the world stage.

What's needed is a straightforward course correction. Iran is a good place to start. Supporting the opposition's right to demonstrate and shining a light on human-rights abuses is not the same as promoting regime change. The key is to rally international, not just American, pressure—for instance, by having a United Nations rapporteur investigate abuses of political prisoners. While some Americans may not care about the U.N., the Iranian government does. When it comes to technology aid—blocking Iranian government tracking of critics on the Internet, for instance—the standard should be to support Iranian democrats in whatever way possible but not, given the history of the CIA's role in the 1953 coup there, to cross the line into active efforts at overthrowing the government. There's no reason we can't continue nuclear talks at the same time. During the Cold War, we had no problem conducting arms-control negotiations with Moscow while also using the Helsinki process to advocate for dissidents and their freedoms.

In the future, the administration should also be prepared to press harder on human rights in China. Beijing did not purchase nearly $1 trillion in Treasury bills from the United States as a favor but as a sound investment. China is not going to stop buying them or sell them out of pique at U.S. statements on democratic values and human rights. But for all those brave Chinese dissidents in jail or under surveillance, knowing that Washington is acting on their behalf, that they are not forgotten, is a powerful message.

There were many reasons why Afghanistan was declared the "good war" by Democrats. Unlike Iraq, it benefits from worldwide support, a genuine connection to 9/11, and universal revulsion against the Taliban's extremist ideology, in which non-Muslims are the enemy, women are sub--human, and the murder of innocents is justified. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested, allowing the proponents of that ideology another victory against a second superpower in Afghanistan would provide a boost in recruitment and respect for a movement that is just now losing its appeal.

There is every reason to consider the war in Afghanistan a larger calling, beyond the narrow mission of preventing Al Qaeda from having access to training bases. Indeed, the moral component could be dramatized to secure needed support from key NATO allies, like Germany, which are particularly susceptible to such appeals. Such an appeal to principle does not mean a longer, more difficult war. On the contrary, many soldiers on the ground know they are agents of progress, fending off a return to Taliban terror. And, yes, some are proud to escort young girls to school. That isn't unlimited nation building. It is a way to share freedom's blessings, and part of a mission of which Americans can be proud.

There is no magic formula for achieving the right balance of principle and pragmatism in American foreign policy. There is a right time for calculation and a right time for inspiration. In Afghanistan, Iran, and China, it is the right time for both.