The freedom section of President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause -- two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama's relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence -- an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," -- they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.
Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama's speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.
But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America's first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history's tides rather than merely be swept along.
What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny's crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.
Moreover, he is a president who, no matter how beleaguered at home, still commands tremendous acclaim overseas. Focusing on advancing human rights and democracy offers a chance to direct some of his considerable soft power in a constructive direction, and perhaps even recapture some of the charismatic appeal that has since his inauguration been strangely absent.
Here follows just a few countries that could benefit from presidential attention. The list below doesn't mean to neglect supporting human rights and democracy in strategic yet challenging places like China and Russia, which also merit increased attention. Merely, the course of events may have brought these following places -- for different reasons and representing almost every continent -- to a strategic crossroads during the Obama presidency:
Besides the above regimes, there are others that could be mentioned -- including Zimbabwe, Syria, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Or even Burma; perhaps a component of the new strategic partnership with Indonesia could be a renewed, multilateral push to peacefully end the Burmese junta's reign of terror? In short, there is no lack of opportune places to press for freedom; it is a matter of priority and attention.
What to do? For starters, President Obama could follow the pattern set by President Bush and meet with dissidents in the Oval Office. He should also instruct U.S. ambassadors in authoritarian countries to do the same in their homes and embassies. The State Department should empower assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Michael Posner by ensuring that he is included in high-level bilateral meetings with leaders of authoritarian countries -- and on the Secretary of State's official trips to such places. The administration should ensure that funding for human rights and democracy programs -- an almost infinitesimal portion of the foreign assistance budget -- is increased, not decreased (as was the case with the almost 12 percent cut from FY09 to FY10). It should increase support for international broadcasting efforts, such as the vital work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Finally, as with the UNGA speech, President Obama and his cabinet should continue to speak out on behalf of human rights and democracy -- and in the future mention specific countries, and specific prisoners of conscience.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.