Shadow Government

Obama's Oslo triumph

Last week, I wrote that perhaps the best part of President Obama's West Point speech was his robust recitation -- for the first time in his presidency -- of America's unparalleled contributions to global peace and security. In part it was so welcome because it was so unexpected. In most of his major addresses throughout his first 10 months in office, the president had fallen into the unfortunate habit of appearing before foreign audiences and dwelling excessively on his own country's faults and transgressions -- a style that, while sure to win him plaudits from the likes of those deciding the Nobel Peace Prize, was unlikely to prove particularly productive in advancing concrete American interests around the world. In my comments after the West Point address, I'd urged the president to take his newfound appreciation for American exceptionalism and make it a centerpiece of his riff at Oslo.

Well, that's just what he did. I thought the president's sober defense of the essential role of force and military power -- and specifically American military power -- in maintaining global order against the predations of those who would destroy it was extremely important. It was important most of all because it's the truth, perhaps the central truth of international affairs for the last 60-odd years. It was important because it was this particular president saying it, who at times has seemed more focused on currying favor with the world's pacifist left than on fully embracing his role as America's commander-in-chief at a time when our forces are engaged in two major wars and the threat of a nuclear-armed Islamist tyranny looms ever closer on the horizon. And it was important because these hard truths were spoken to an audience of European elites who, as the president bluntly said, have increasingly come to question whether any cause at all is worth fighting for, and whose reflexive anti-Americanism has grown increasingly strident.

There were things here and there to quibble with in this speech, both stylistically and substantively.  But at its core, what really mattered -- and what I think people will remember about the address -- is that President Barack Obama went before an international audience for the first time in his young presidency and, rather than giving them what they wanted to hear, told them what they needed to hear about the enduring indispensability of American power and principle in a deeply troubled and flawed world. That's a potentially important -- and welcome -- evolution in the Obama presidency, one that could have real significance for U.S. national security going forward.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama has the Nobel Peace Prize, but action on human rights is long overdue

It is a sad bit of irony that International Human Rights Day and President Obama's formal acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize coincide today.

Much has been written about the strange choice of the Nobel Committee and good suggestions made on how the President could redeem his premature award. My favorite suggestions were that he accept it on behalf of American men and women in the military who have fought for freedom or donate his medal to Shirin Ebadi (her Nobel medal was recently stolen by regime thugs) and invite her to the White House for the handover. Regardless of how he handles the acceptance speech, the president already has said that the award should serve as a "call to action." Action from Obama on human rights globally is long overdue.

Obama is increasingly criticized in the United States and other regions for his persistent refusal to promote universal human rights and democratic values or speak out in support of those around the world risking their lives to defend them. It's time to change course. After an imperfect but bold decision on the use of U.S. hard power in Afghanistan, the president now needs to do the same with soft power issues.

Obama's foreign policy instincts, especially on these issues, are not great and he needs to start listening to those within his own administration who understand the importance of promoting human rights and democratic values globally. There is no doubt that bitter battles were waged within the State Department and across the interagency over whether or not the president should meet his fellow Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama and over what the words he should, or should not, use when speaking about the Iranian opposition (including fellow Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi). But at the end of the day, it is the president who sets the tone of U.S. foreign policy and decides who wins those internal battles. And so far, the administration's internal human rights defenders appear to be losing most of them. They must be frustrated.

Obama has prioritized talking with our enemies which can make sense if done right. But if we compromise on universal principles like human rights from the outset we already have lost. And talking for talking's sake leads nowhere. But if the United States holds fast to principles in the midst of negotiations, talking may bear fruit. Take Burma as an example. I remain wary of the dialogue the United States has opened with the generals who rule Burma because I've seen the pattern before with U.N. envoys coming and going with no results from "dialogue." Talk is not progress unless the generals are speaking to Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, other democracy movement leaders and the ethnic nationalities directly about the future of their country. But I would be delighted if the United States discussions succeeded in facilitating change and led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, perhaps they will. The State Department has thus far kept to longstanding, principled demands for progress on human rights, including the release of political prisoners, before lifting sanctions on the regime. Also positive was ambassador-at-large for global women's issues Melanne Verveer's recent meeting with Burmese women activists to discuss sexual violence by the Burmese military. I met with some of these same women, nearly 8 years ago, and the widespread rape continues unabated. As I have articulated before, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers and other crimes against humanity against ethnic minority civilians have long provided justification for U.N. Security Council action on Burma. Sadly, the Obama administration has dropped the U.S. effort at the Security Council begun under President Bush and Ambassador Verveer has little to offer the women she met. Thus we see the limits of engagement on these issues without support from the top.     

President Obama campaigned on change and has had nearly a year of trying to be "Anything But Bush." But it is time to move on and become the leader that Americans -- and human rights activists around the world -- expect. We want a leader who stands for universal principles in line with our own -- even when it is difficult to do so -- and builds alliances with nations or people within nations who share our commitment to human rights, democracy and peace -- not with tyrants who don't. The president cannot rely on his personality to win over dictators and convince them to change, but his popularity could benefit human rights defenders around the world if he chose to stand with them. The current situation of downtrodden dissidents and frustrated friends is certainly not the best that U.S. leadership has to offer, but principled choices leading to real action on human rights is change I could believe in.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images