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The White House says human rights “will be on the agenda and will be tremendously important” during President Barack Obama’s summit with President Hu Jintao of China. If so, it’s about time.
As Jackson Diehl observes in a thoughtful piece in The Washington Post, the Obama administration has not only been quiet on human rights and democracy, but has conveyed a “deeply ingrained resistance to the notion that the United States should publicly shame authoritarian regimes or stand up for the dissidents they persecute.” When it comes to speaking up for democracy and speaking out against dictatorship, Diehl writes, “The U.S. voice remains positively timid—or not heard at all.”
This is one of the regrettable consequences of Obama’s desire to be the anti-Bush, and it’s good that people are finally taking notice.
Indeed, there were early indications of this long before this year, even before the election of 2008. Back in July 2007, for example, during Obama’s endless campaign for the White House, AP pointed out that “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said…the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Presidents from both parties have used military force to address humanitarian problems and affronts to human rights. Indeed, contrary to what the isolationists and realists tell us, this is deeply ingrained in American foreign policy:
• In the 1840s, when Ireland was ravaged by famine, the U.S. response included “two sloops of war, four merchant ships, and two steamers” full of aid, as Robert Bremner writes in American Philanthropy.
• TR observed that in the face of “crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror,” even when “our own interests are not greatly involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies.”
• Truman launched the Berlin Airlift for a mix of humanitarian and strategic reasons.
• Ford deployed military forces to rescue orphaned Vietnamese babies and children.
• The elder Bush dispatched U.S. forces to help the friendless Kurds and the starving Somalis. Clinton did likewise in the Balkans. The younger Bush followed suit in Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa.
In short, answering when the forgotten and the oppressed cry out for help is part of what America does.
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