Shadow Government

Where's Obama's Own Freedom Agenda?

Now that Barack Obama's presidency is well into its fifth year, one of the biggest puzzles continues to be this administration's persistent neglect of human rights and democracy policy. The White House's dismissal of a "freedom agenda" during its first year in office was foolish as a policy matter yet unsurprising as a political matter, given the reflexive temptation of almost every new presidency to distance itself from its predecessor. But over four years later, that excuse no longer holds water -- especially in light of the combination of resurgent authoritarianism and revolutionary ferment across the globe. Behind almost every one of the front-page national security challenges confronting the Obama administration today -- such as Iran's nuclear weapons program, North Korea's nuclear weapons, the Syrian civil war, the Egyptian coup, Russia's safe harbor for Edward Snowden (applauded by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela), China's cyberattacks, and so on -- stands the problem of either autocratic or fragile, illiberal regimes.

Of course these are profoundly difficult issues. Not since the 1989-1991 global convulsions at the end of the Cold War has there been such a staggering and simultaneous array of revolutionary changes taking place around the world. Yet as hard as statecraft is in this environment, there remains a chasm between international events and American policy priorities, between the call of history and the administration's lack of response. 

No, I am not suggesting that a robust human rights and democracy policy would be the silver-bullet answer to all these challenges -- that is a simplistic straw man. If anything, the last decade has shown just how agonizingly hard the promotion of democratic institutions and human rights can be. But a coherent freedom policy needs to be at least part of the tool kit and more of a priority than it has been. At one level, Obama seems to have an intuitive sense for this; witness his recent nostalgic reflections in South Africa on how advocating for human rights and Nelson Mandela's liberty in South Africa as a college student marked his first political activism. Now that Obama has graduated from student activism to the Oval Office, there are contemporary moral equivalents to Mandela among freedom dissidents in countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea who would appreciate the support of the U.S. presidency.

Meanwhile, there have been two developments this month that offer signs of encouragement. First, Obama's nomination of Tom Malinowski to be the assistant secretary of state for democracy, rights, and labor (DRL) is much to be welcomed. Malinowski brings energy, intellect, moral principle, and over two decades of experience in both human rights and foreign policy. The latter is especially crucial as it will equip him to work effectively within the interagency system and help prevent DRL from sliding back to the bureaucratic margins at Foggy Bottom. I hope he will be swiftly confirmed and can assume his duties soon.

Second, the launch just this past week of the new Freedom Square blog by the George W. Bush Institute heralds a fresh and innovative new platform for news and insight on freedom issues around the globe. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check it out, as you'll find distinguished voices such as Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice, as well as sharp upcoming writers such as Jordan Hirsch. Freedom Square looks to be a valuable new resource and comes at a needful time.


Shadow Government

In Brazil, Pope Weighs in on Drug Debate

Traveling this week in Brazil, Pope Francis delivered an unexpected broadside against the current push in the region by some governments to revise drug consumption laws. Visiting a drug rehabilitation center in Rio de Janeiro, the pontiff said, "A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America." Rather, "it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs," which includes promoting greater justice and more education.

He went on to denounce powerful drug-trafficking syndicates as "merchants of death," adding, "The scourge of drug trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death, requires an act of courage from society as a whole."

The pope's words are a devastating blow to the current campaign calling for a fundamental rethinking on how to prosecute the war on drugs in the Americas. Much to the chagrin of Barack Obama's administration, that has become the primary issue many of the United States' neighbors want to discuss in regional forums. And it is not just anti-American populists pushing the matter just to embarrass the United States, but responsible governments like Colombia and Guatemala.

In fact, just as Pope Francis spoke those words in Rio, Organization of American States Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza was traveling in neighboring Uruguay and Paraguay delivering copies of the organization's recent report saying that governments should consider decriminalizing some drug use. The ostensible goal would be to make trafficking less lucrative and hence reduce incentives for drug-related violence.

Certainly no one can blame those frustrated governments whose societies have been most ravaged by the narcotics trade -- the wanton violence, the pervasive corruption, the economic dislocations, and the destroyed lives -- for seeking alternative solutions. But the pope's words are a reminder that there are no easy solutions -- no silver bullet -- to eliminating the criminal element in our collective midst.

The Obama administration's response to the regional effort is to say it is open to dialogue on the issue, which is really just a polite way of saying it has no plans to alter current counternarcotics policies. In Guatemala, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "These challenges simply defy any simple, one-shot Band-Aid [approach].… Drug abuse destroys lives, tears at communities of all of our countries."

The administration is right to hold the line on drug policy. It is not to be hardhearted about the domestic costs that countries have borne fighting the drug scourge. After all, they are paying the price to feed the recreational habits of consumers in wealthier societies such as the United States. But there is no compelling evidence that less restrictive policies would lessen drug-related violence or otherwise improve their respective situations in any way. In fact, what is certain to occur is a spike in local consumption, with all the attendant social ills and economic dislocations that would engender.

Countries must continue the admittedly challenging tasks of developing more-effective law enforcement capabilities, open and transparent court systems, and better prisons, while increasing economic opportunity and building strong social sectors. As Pope Francis alludes, regional governments have no choice but to continue tackling the tough reforms that are essential for their own future political stability, democratic consolidation, the general welfare, and national security.