from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Secretary Clinton Discovers Human Rights

November 08, 2011

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Secretary of State Clinton gave a strong human rights speech on Monday night, to the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Like its cousins the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI was established by the Reagan administration to promote human rights and democracy, and NDI has done a superb job for decades.

And yet, Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were strangely ahistorical. She might have strengthened her argument about the American commitment to democracy promotion, for example, had she actually noted that NDI was created by a conservative Republican president. But that would have violated what appears to be a cardinal principle of the Obama Administration: never give anyone credit for anything.

A good example of this practice is visible in Mrs. Clinton’s line Monday night that

We begin by rejecting the false choice between progress and stability…. And today, we recognize that the real choice is between reform and unrest.

Sound familiar? In his 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, president Bush famously said

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.

There is more. Mrs. Clinton said Monday night that

Now, we should never fall prey to the belief that human beings anywhere are not ready for freedom. In the 1970s, people said Latin America and East Asia were not ready. Well, the 1980s began proving them wrong. In the 1980s, it was African soil where democracy supposedly couldn’t grow. And the 1990s started proving them wrong. And until this year, some people said Arabs don’t really want democracy. Well, starting in 2011, that too is being proved wrong.

Does this also produce an echo?  In 2003 president Bush told to the NED

Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative government. This "cultural condescension," as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would "never work." Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany are, and I quote, "most uncertain at best" -- he made that claim in 1957. Seventy-four years ago, The Sunday London Times declared nine-tenths of the population of India to be "illiterates not caring a fig for politics." Yet when Indian democracy was imperiled in the 1970s, the Indian people showed their commitment to liberty in a national referendum that saved their form of government.

Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are "ready" for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress. In fact, the daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences. As men and women are showing, from Bangladesh to Botswana, to Mongolia, it is the practice of democracy that makes a nation ready for democracy, and every nation can start on this path.

One could go on. The point of these reminders is not to accuse Mrs. Clinton’s speechwriters of plagiarism, but to show that there is a background to her remarks. She might have acknowledged it gracefully.

If one were to be more critical, he might note that her remarks are ahistorical in another way as well: they do not reflect what her own and President Obama’s human rights policies have actually been over these three years in power.

Egypt is probably the best (that is, worst) example. In her speech Secretary Clinton made numerous remarks about Egypt, including this one: “But as the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made clear, the enduring cooperation we seek will be difficult to sustain without democratic legitimacy and public consent. We cannot have one set of policies to advance security in the here-and-now and another to promote democracy in a long run that never quite arrives.” Very true. But in fact the Obama Administration was very tight with Hosni Mubarak, and after his refusal to visit the United States in the Bush second term he came to visit Mr. Obama in 2009 (after a five year absence) and again in 2010. Worse yet, the Obama Administration reinstated the unbelievable practice of allowing Mubarak’s regime to veto American grants to Egyptian democracy and human rights NGOs. That’s right: the United States would not give a grant to a human rights group critical of Mubarak unless Mubarak approved it! The Bush administration had ended that practice; Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton reinstated it.

As a former top official of Freedom House, the venerable human rights NGO, put it last winter, “The attitude of Obama administration toward the pro-democracy movement was to put them at arm’s length, and make sure that US interaction with the pro-democracy movement did not in any way ruffle the feathers of a dictatorial regime.”

Secretary Clinton’s speech said very many true and important things and pledged the United States to support democracy in the Middle East. She wrestled with some of the key issues we will face in doing so, from the role of Islamist parties to the difficulties every new democracy faces in building the institutions and the habits of self-rule. But she ignored both the background of American support for democracy in previous administrations, and the very weak record of her own. If she and the president are late converts to the cause, that’s great: far better late than never. But the world was not created anew yesterday, and she would be more persuasive now if she reflected on the achievements and the errors that came before.