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Waffle, Vacillate, Fail

Author: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
August 10, 2013
International Herald Tribune


In just the last few weeks, the Russian government has used a show trial to silence a prominent activist, Egypt's junta has massacred protesters, Turkey has cracked down on peaceful dissent, and the rulers of Cambodia and Zimbabwe have stolen elections — again.

In each case, the Obama administration has done little more than mutter objections under its breath. Such seeming indifference has infuriated human rights and democracy advocates, who are dismayed by the mismatch between the president's occasional stirring speech and his everyday lack of action.

More hard-boiled types, however — so-called foreign policy realists — have applauded Obama's sang-froid, arguing that to focus on such issues would only distract him from the pursuit of America's real interests, and that pressure wouldn't work anyway.

I find sorting through such arguments difficult. That's because both cases are made by smart people and with total conviction. And because both positions appeal to different parts of the body, heart vs. head. Yet columnists don't have the luxury of sitting on the fence; those who do aren't worth reading. So like a good wonk, I went to look for data. The idea was to use evidence, not sentiment, to settle the debate.

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