Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Freedom in the World 2011

by Elliott Abrams
January 14, 2011

Tunisians shout slogans as they demonstrate against Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on January 14, 2011 (STR New/Courtesy Reuters)

Freedom in the world is declining. Given Hillary Clinton’s remarks yesterday about change in the Arab world and with the Obama Administration’s half-time in office coming next Friday, it’s a good moment for an assessment of Obama human rights policy.

That freedom is declining is the stark conclusion of Freedom in the World 2011, the annual survey published by Freedom House. Their assessment:

The increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge, with important consequences for the state of global freedom. According to Freedom in the World 2011, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, conditions worsened for the fifth consecutive year in 2010. While the decline for the year was less extensive than in some years past, the multiyear spate of backsliding is the longest of its kind since Freedom in the World was first published in 1972….

As Freedom House points out, two of the most striking offenders are Russia and China. A famous old quip holds that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and for much of the past two decades dictators often claimed that they were moving toward democracy—slowly, carefully, in keeping with the local political culture, they would say—but they would claim to be moving. They recognized democracy as the only legitimate and accepted goal. Today, that’s not what Hu or Putin are saying, and “truculent” is a good description of their rejection of freedom and respect for human rights. Putin’s treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Hu’s of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are the best examples.

The blame for violations of human rights and democracy lies squarely with the rulers who commit them, of course, but it is fair to ask about the efficacy of U.S. human rights and democracy promotion policy. Could we be doing better? Andrew Albertson, who until recently headed the Project on Middle East Democracy, has written a powerful assessment of the failings of the Obama Administration’s approach:

“Administration officials say that they are playing a long game when it comes to democracy and human rights, focusing on the international organizational and ideological infrastructure supporting these goals…. The fruits of these efforts in the Arab world have been limited so far. Multilateral efforts have had some modest impact, but are undercut when individual states—especially the United States itself—fail to attach meaningful consequences to UN findings…. the human rights and political reform bureaucracies within the National Security Council and the State Department focus mainly on multilateral diplomacy and have little impact on the formulation of diplomatic strategies toward specific Arab governments. As a result, protests over human rights abuses have tended to run parallel to, rather than intersecting with, larger bilateral relationships. Even presidential rhetoric has at times seemed disconnected from the bureaucratic machinery necessary to back up words with action. The broad-ranging infrastructure set up to implement the deliverables in Obama’s dramatic Cairo address in June 2009 has ground to a halt with few significant successes….Quiet diplomacy has not succeeded in advancing political reform in the Arab world during the first two years of the Obama administration. There are signs that administration officials are considering ways to adjust going forward, which might yet result in a more assertive effort of frank public diplomacy and substantive policy incentives. In order for the administration to help reverse the regressive trend in Arab politics, it will need to demonstrate stronger linkages between its rhetoric on human rights and political reform on the one hand, and policy consequences on the other.”

More simply put, there are speeches but no consequences.

And the speeches are not very powerful either. On the same day that Freedom in the World was released, Secretary of State Clinton addressed the Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar. That Forum was established at the Sea Island G-8 Summit in 2004, one of a number of human rights and democracy initiatives of President George W. Bush. The Forum is supposed to bring together G-8 officials with Middle Eastern government officials and civil society leaders, and it is very much to Secretary Clinton’s credit that she attended—as she attended the Community of Democracies meeting in Cracow, Poland last July. Her presence carries substantial symbolic weight.

Press reports of her speech were glowing. “Clinton Rips Arabs for Lack of Reform,” said the Wall Street Journal on page one. The New York Times story was headed “Clinton Bluntly Presses Arab Leaders on Reform.” But in fact Secretary Clinton did not use the occasion in Doha to deliver a substantial message about human rights and democracy. In fact neither term—neither “democracy” nor “human rights”—actually appears in her remarks, nor does the simple but powerful term “freedom.” There is one promising line—“in too many places, in too many ways the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand”—but then the Secretary talks generally about “reform” and “governance.”

The closest she comes to demanding freedom is this: “I believe that the leaders of this region, in partnership with their people, have the capacity to build that stronger foundation. There are enough models and examples in the region to point to, to make the economic and social reforms that will create jobs, respect the right of diversity to exist, create more economic opportunity, encourage entrepreneurship, give citizens the skills they need to succeed, to make the political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.” She also says that “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.”

But then she goes back to talking about “investing in the future,” “long term stability and progress,” and a new U.S. program called the “Partnership for a New Beginning” that also ignores political freedom in favor of things like “human connectedness.”

This is, to use the kind of vocabulary the State Department always favors, concerning, troubling, even dismaying. Why not say flatly that the region has a democracy deficit and will never advance until human rights are respected? Secretary of State Rice did it, in Cairo in 2005; in her speech she called for democracy, freedom, liberty, free elections, and said “It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy. There are those who say that democracy is being imposed. In fact, the opposite is true: Democracy is never imposed. It is tyranny that must be imposed….Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation.”  For what those people in the streets of Tunis are demanding isn’t reform, nor is it better governance, nor is it more open government. They are demanding freedom.

Freedom is the greatest asset of the United States and our country’s very reason for being, and to restate our commitment to it is far more powerful than speeches about “governance” or “reform.” As Ralph Lerner of the University of Chicago recently wrote, the call for freedom has “the transformative power of an abstract thought.” Lerner reminds us of Lincoln’s words about the Founding Fathers at Alton, Illinois in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858:

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

Next week, President Hu of China will visit Washington. Will he hear words like those, about the need for freedom “for all people of all colors everywhere,” or like the words of George W. Bush in his Second Inaugural Address, where he said “there is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.” Or will he hear about “reform” and better “governance?” Mr. Hu will be in Washington at precisely the half-way mark in Mr. Obama’s term, itself an odd symbol if the administration were committed to a human rights agenda. It has been pointed out that this will be a meeting “between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.” What the president says to Hu, publicly where the Chinese and American peoples can hear it, will be a good test of whether administration officials are “playing a long game” on freedom and human rights, or sitting on the sidelines.

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