The most important question asked at last week’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas did not create much of a stir. It set off no pyrotechnics between Senator Hillary Clinton and her rivals, caused no tsunami in the blogosphere, incited no pundits to new heights of hyperbole.
It did, however, cut to the heart of how the party’s presidential candidates see the world and America’s place in it.
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked simply, “Is human rights more important than American national security?”
The inquiry came in the midst of a discussion about Pakistan and its authoritarian leader, Pervez Musharraf. Some candidates—Senator Chris Dodd, and, more nebulously, Mrs. Clinton—indicated that they would give national security primacy. Governor Bill Richardson asserted that human rights were more important.
But the way in which the question was framed reflected a fundamental and habitual error in foreign policy thinking.
Two ideas hold enormous sway: first, that a commitment to human rights and a commitment to national security are mutually exclusive, or at least in constant tension with each other; second, that realism in international affairs inevitably involves choosing the latter over the former.
The consensus that has built up around these notions is profoundly unhealthy.
One candidate, Senator Barack Obama, addressed this point more clearly and effectively than anyone else on the stage:
“The concepts are not contradictory, Wolf,” he told the CNN anchor. “They are complementary.”
Mr. Obama added:
“The more we see repression, the more there are no outlets for how people can express themselves and their aspirations, the worse off we’re going to be, and the more anti-American sentiment there is going to be in the Middle East. We keep on making this mistake.”
Indeed we do – and the dwindling regard for the U.S. across the Middle East and in many parts of the developing world is the dismal result.
Simply declaring American support for democracy, liberty and human rights will not solve the world’s problems. This administration provides a signal example of how fine rhetoric comes to naught when it is applied selectively or not acted upon at all.
Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address, which proclaimed freedom as “the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul” struck an epic tone. Those lofty ambitions soon sagged and expired.
Placing the promotion of human rights and democracy at the core of American foreign policy would not be without costs. Those costs—primarily, the election of governments that would not be especially pliable to Washington’s will—would have to be paid before the benefits would likely be seen.
But the longer-term payoffs would include an increase in the U.S.’s stature and moral authority, and a decline in anti-Americanism. Such developments would be profoundly significant, because they would help siphon off the support that some radical groups vituperatively opposed to the U.S. currently enjoy.
There is, in any case, good reason to believe that the doom-laden pronouncements of the self-described foreign policy “realists” may be exaggerated in several instances.
In Pakistan, for example, de facto U.S. support for Mr. Musharraf continues, and is justified on the basis that the general serves as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
In fact, support for Islamicists in Pakistan is weak. The main coalition of religious parties received only 11.1 per cent of the vote in the last general election in 2002. The former cricket star Imran Khan busily capitalizes on his sporting fame in Pakistan and parts of the West to promote himself as a political player among the Islamists. His party received a mere 0.8 per cent of the votes in 2002.