The Obama administration continues to reduce the importance of promoting democracy and human rights–in policy and even in rhetoric. Consider these three quotes.
The first is from former Secretary of State Clinton, speaking in October 2012 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
For the United States, supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity. And we will not return to the false choice between freedom and stability. And we will not pull back our support for emerging democracies when the going gets rough. That would be a costly strategic mistake that would, I believe, undermine both our interests and our values.
The second is from President Obama’s speech at the State Department May, 2011:
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
The third is from President Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly this week:
The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy….We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people….And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.
Now, to say that these are America’s core interests is not to say that they are our only interests. We deeply believe it is in our interests to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous. And we’ll continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity.
So much for democracy and human rights. In 2011 they were “not a secondary interest” but a “top priority.” In 2012 they were a “strategic necessity.” But in 2013, they are no longer a “core interest” at all.
Why the demotion to “nice to have?” No explanation is given. One has to wonder if the President, or his speechwriter, realized that this rhetorical change was taking place, would be noticed, and is important. Certainly for the tens of millions of people who live under tyrannies and seek American support for freedom, the President’s demotion of freedom is a sad day.
(For those interested in an incisive and comprehensive look at the Obama administration’s reaction to the Arab Spring, see the new report by the Atlantic Council entitled “US and EU: Lack of Strategic Vision, Frustrated Efforts Toward the Arab Transitions.” The analyses in that report suggested this blog post.)