Human rights groups are beginning to question President Obama’s commitment to their issue as the administration engages authoritarian regimes, retains the option of sending terrorist suspects abroad to places where they might be tortured and puts off a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Mr. Obama’s decision to wait until after he visits China in November to meet with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists - who was on Capitol Hill Tuesday receiving an award - comes after a series of decisions that have underlined a classic tension in U.S. foreign policy between the head and the heart.
While Mr. Obama campaigned for the White House by promising to restore American values, he also vowed to talk with governments that had been shunned by his predecessor. Now, those promises are bumping against each other.
“There has not been sufficient attention paid within this administration on how to counter the major challenges to human rights that we face today,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “We see authoritarian regimes like China, Iran and Egypt and others getting granted opportunities for dialogue and engagement, but it’s not clear from the outside how human rights concerns will be addressed in that engagement.”
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said he favors the engagement policy but also has concerns.
“The president’s larger emphasis on engagement - that you should be talking to even those regimes that you hate the most - tends to empower those in the diplomatic corps whose core approach is making nice and handing out gold stars,” he said.
“I am not against the engagement strategy, [but] they need to make it clear that engagement only works when there is pressure.” he said.
However, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two Republican presidents, said public scolding of repressive regimes sometimes backfires.
“I think to preach to people tends to make them less likely to want to do what you want, just because if they do, they run the risk of their own people saying they are kowtowing to the United States,” he said.
Mr. Obama took particular flak for not meeting with the Dalai Lama during his annual visit to Washington.
China sees U.S. high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959, as implying support for Tibetan independence.
On Tuesday, the spiritual leader was the first person awarded the promotion of human rights prize named after the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California. Lantos arranged the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Congress in 1987.
The Dalai Lama’s special envoy, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, suggested that the Tibetan leader had taken no offense at the president’s decision not to meet with him now.
“Taking a broader and long-term perspective, His Holiness agreed to meet the president after the November U.S.-China summit,” he said. The White House also agreed to send a high-level delegation headed by senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama is based. This, Mr. Gyari said, “indicates a new approach on Tibet by the U.S. administration.”
Beyond the Tibetan issue, criticism has focused on U.S. policy toward Sudan.
Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, called it disturbing that it has taken so long for the administration “to settle on a clear statement of their Sudan policy. I am not worried about premature engagement. What is not clear is the terms of engagement. What is the balance of incentives and pressures?”
Others worry that the administration’s approach to Iran has focused too much on nuclear issues and not enough on political prisoners in the aftermath of mass protests against tainted June 12 presidential elections. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently canceled funding for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a Connecticut-based group that documented Iranian government abuses.
Renee Redman, the executive director of the center, said, “We are very disappointed especially as we watched the events and human rights violations after the June 12 elections. I would have thought this would be a time when the government would want to fund organizations that are documenting human rights violations.”
The group has since received money from the Canadian government.
A senior administration official noted that Undersecretary of State William J. Burns “raised the issue of human rights … with the Iranians directly and had a frank exchange with them” when he met for 45 minutes with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva last week.
The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added, “The main point we underscore to our friends in the human rights community is that the positions the president is taking are done so in part because they are the best way to advance human rights. The notion that there is some kind of trade-off between acting in a coldly interest-based way versus working in an idealistic is a choice that the president rejects.”
The official added that on Tibet, “a positive and constructive relationship with China will advance the goal of promoting human rights and cultural identity for the Tibetan people.”
On Sudan, he said, U.S. “efforts to advance a comprehensive peace in the region will ultimately be the long-term guarantor of human rights for the people of Darfur and all the Sudanese people.”
Another area of concern is treatment of terrorist detainees. While Mr. Obama has earned praise from civil liberties groups for outlawing harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, the administration has reserved the option of sending suspected terrorists to foreign jails where they could face torture, a practice known as rendition. The administration also has said it may not meet its self-imposed deadline of the end of the year to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“From a civil liberties perspective, President Obama’s report card show an incomplete,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said he was concerned about Sudan and rendition but supported Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s priority of eradicating hunger.
“When a child is starving, that is a human rights issue,” he said.
He added that if the White House missed its target for closing Guantanamo, many in Congress, including both Democrats and Republicans, were to blame.
“It’s early yet to give anyone a grade,” he said. “What they are trying to do is to come up with a human rights policy that is effective and not merely rhetorical.”
Mr. McGovern’s Republican co-chairman of the caucus, Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, was less understanding. He said he would give Mr. Obama “an F, failing,” on human rights.
“I thought Bush was much better,” Mr. Wolf said. “Bush appointed John Danforth as envoy to Sudan. He met with the Dalai Lama. I would send dissidents to the White House and Bush would meet with them.”
Mr. Wolf said he was worried about the kind of advice Mr. Obama was getting on human rights.
“Someone has his ear and it’s taking him the wrong way,” he said.
Samantha Power, a mentor to Mr. Obama when he was in the Senate, is a senior director at the National Security Council for Human Rights and International Organizations. The Senate confirmed last month Michael Posner, the former president of Human Rights First, for the key post of assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Maria Otero was confirmed in August to be the State Department’s undersecretary for democracy and global affairs.
Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said he saw some similarities between Mr. Obama’s approach to human rights and that of President George H.W. Bush.
“This is the Democratic version of realism, but by the same token, the president has rhetorically championed American values and we don’t know what the policies will look like at the end of the day because they are still working them out,” Mr. Pollack said.
Steve Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation, called the Obama policy “progressive pragmatism.”
“The fact is, just like Richard Nixon, Obama has come into office with an extraordinarily bad national security and economic portfolio to restore America’s leverage in the world and its power,” Mr. Clemons said. “He has to reinvent an engagement strategy with global stakeholders that can create a strategic leap out of the incrementalism and inertia driving things today. This is frustrating for human rights groups because pragmatic deal-making that ultimately could restore America’s ability to achieve great progressive goals is looked at by many of them as an immoral compromise.”