Friday, September 24, 2010

Obama at the UN: promote democracy and human rights, from within

The WaPo's Scott Wilson' report on Mr. Obama's UN speech is headlined with Obama's rebuke, hours later, of Ahmadinejad's allusion in his own speech to a supposed US role in the 9/11 attacks.  (BTW, I have no problem in asserting that 9/11 was to some extent the consequence of a long history of ill-conceived US policies in the Middle East.  You can't read any of Joy Gordon's recent work on the US's role in intentionally crippling Iraq via the sanctions imposed between 1990 and 2003 - and then factor in the US's one-sided stance in the Israel-Palestine conflict - without concluding that Muslims across the region had good reason to be angry with the US.  But for Ahmadinejad to claim that the US somehow helped orchestrate that attack - even if it did open the door to an Iraq invasion that Bush's people were pushing as soon as they walked into the White House - seems absurd.)

But Wilson's report deals mainly with Obama's newly stated agenda to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East and beyond.  Wilson notes - perhaps a bit coyly - that Obama had once criticized Bush for pushing democracy, but that Obama's agenda seems similar to Bush's.  For further "insight," Wilson sought out Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser for human rights and democracy under Bush - which perhaps tells you all you need to know about where Wilson is coming from.  Abrams, let's not forget, is an operator of the first order: convicted as one of the "evil-doers" in the Iran Contra affair of the late 1980s, a major promoter of the neocon agenda under Bush (who helped resuscitate Abrams' career), and one of Israel's foremost apologists in the US (and defenders of Israel's right to colonize (not that he'd be so stupid as to put it that way) the West Bank.  Abrams criticizes Obama for his multilateral approach to democracy and human rights issues, which he finds much inferior to the bilateral approach under Bush.  In fairness, I'll also note that Wilson quotes Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who said, "There has been a steady evolution in the way he has spoken about human rights that has shown a strengthening in language, in goals and in the U.S. ambition to lead on the issue. . . . What matters most is how these words take effect in policies."

Thing is, the bilateral approach that Abrams touts relied on one-to-one confrontation, with the US making the demands, with the underlying understanding being (as one of Bush's officials said at the time), "what we say, goes" - and that the US had the military and financial muscle to back it up.

Well, it's because of "advisors" like Abrams that Bush, by invading Iraq, threatening Syria and Iran, and botching things in Afghanistan, ran the US military and financial machine into a ditch from which it may never be able to extricate itself.  It seems beyond disingenuous then for Abrams and his ilk (Krauthammer, the WSJ, and Rupert Murdoch's various bullhorns) to enjoin Obama to re-board the bilateralist, American-exceptionalist, our-way-or-the-highway ship when they've already torched and sunk it.  It's gone; over; done.  The US can't afford the financial cost; the US's international reputation and legitimacy - remember that "American values" thing? - can't take the hit. And Andrew Bacevich has so eloquently and often pointed out, the US could never afford it to begin with, can't afford it now, and will be foolish to try to return to it again.

And even if it were to try - by engaging in another military adventure in, say, Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia - it will be going in alone.  Its staunchest ally up to now - Great Britain - no longer has the juice to come along for the ride.  The UN's not going to back it either.  Bush may have been willing to be the lonesome cowboy (even if Tony Blair saved him from that).  Obama won't; the US can't.  If the US is to exercise any leadership in human rights and democracy now, it must be as Obama is now outlining: with soft power, and in cooperation, not confrontation.

But he can really buckle down to doing that only after he restores the US military to its appropriate role: a very, very last resort, rather than a standard operating procedure, when it comes to international relations.

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