- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2014

The world has grown less free on President Obama’s watch, and the U.S. has been left on the free trade sidelines as other countries have pushed bilateral trade agreements.

Those trends aren’t new to Mr. Obama — the Freedom House’s freedom index had been in the midst of a decadelong decline when he took office in 2009 — but the numbers show that his shift away from his predecessor’s foreign policy has done little to halt the slide of American ideals of political and personal freedom.

As Mr. Obama prepares to address the country in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, it’s expected he will focus mainly on domestic issues. But he is likely to weave in a few foreign policy and national security nuggets about the state of the globe, too — even if that means wading into sticky and potentially divisive territory.

“The indifference of Barack Obama and his senior foreign policy team is well-established,” Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote on the think tank’s website.

“This is, more or less, the group that has sought no justice for the murder of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, done nothing for the human rights of the people of Iran, nothing for the rights of persecuted minorities in post-Mubarak Egypt (women, Christians, secularists, anyone?), and stood by observing Russia’s regression to dictatorship, Ukraine’s suppression, Venezuela’s human disaster,” Ms. Pletka wrote. “Why go on?”

In its annual “Freedom of the World” report released last week, the independent watchdog agency Freedom House found an “overall erosion” of political rights and civil liberties worldwide last year, with “54 countries registering declines and 40 earning gains in the report’s scoring system.”

SEE ALSO: EDITORIAL: A weakened and hopeless Obama gives a State of the Union address

The findings marked the eighth consecutive year of overall decline, compared with significant increases in worldwide political freedoms as measured by the organization from the early-1980s through the early 2000s, with the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

An assessment published with this year’s report offered a broad and sobering conclusion: “The events of 2013 were shaped in part by authoritarian powers’ active resistance to democratic change and a crisis of confidence among leading democracies, particularly the United States.”

“In an earlier period, the United States and its allies were the guarantors of political change in the world, providing material resources and diplomatic muscle that tipped the balance in favor of freedom movements and struggling new democracies,” the assessment said.

“Today the animating cause is — or should be — the Middle East. Unfortunately, the American government has failed to recognize the historic moment that presents itself.”

Practical ambitions

Mr. Obama seems unlikely to confront such criticism Tuesday night. Nor does he seem likely to alter the narrative he has sought to craft as a leader who is intent on spreading American good throughout the world.

“As I’ve reminded my team, the day after I was inaugurated for a second term,” Mr. Obama was quoted by The New Yorker recently, “we’re in charge of the largest organization on earth, and our capacity to do some good, both domestically and around the world, is unsurpassed, even if nobody is paying attention.”

Some argue that Mr. Obama is more practical than political and has had the majority of Americans in mind as he shifts the U.S. away from a more confrontational and intervention-based foreign policy embraced during the post-9/11 period by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“I think the Obama administration is cautious about intervention and I think that’s reflective of the majority of the American public,” said Loch Johnson, who focuses on the presidency, national security and foreign policy at the University of Georgia.

“Neoconservatives, under the second Bush administration, really thought that we could bring about a transformation toward democracy in the Middle East,” said Mr. Johnson. “Well, that has been an aspiration that has simply collapsed, and I think in some ways we’re smarter now.”

“We realize the world is not so amenable to the wishes of the U.S.,” he added, noting that the downward trend in freedoms cited by Freedom House did begin during the final years of the Bush administration — not with the start of Mr. Obama’s tenure.

Although Mr. Obama has delivered on promises to capture Osama bin Laden and pull U.S. military forces out of Iraq over the past five years, conservatives in Washington have a growing feeling that he has failed on a host of other foreign policy fronts.

The president, his critics say, has repeatedly missed opportunities to stand behind people fighting for political freedom — from Iran and Syria to Turkey and Ukraine. More broadly, they say, the White House is at risk of being washed over by the increasingly subversive economic and military maneuverings of Cold War-era foes Russia and China.

Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team may claim credit for fending off an immediate threat of military confrontation with Iran by negotiating with the Islamic republic over its disputed nuclear program. But many think his administration has otherwise pinned the U.S. to the sidelines in the Middle East, where Arab Spring pro-democracy movements have increasingly met with harsh official reactions.

More than 100,000 people perished in the violent civil war that erupted in Syria after the nation’s military began crushing what began as pro-democracy, anti-dictatorship rallies nearly three years ago.

Less free world

Away from the violence, there are indications that political freedoms are under the greatest threat in decades — from Asia to Africa to Latin America and Europe.

On the global economic front, there have been glimmers of progress since Mr. Obama became president during a time of crisis.

With regard to one of Mr. Obama’s signature domestic issues — the fight against income inequality — the gap between rich and poor has been narrowing in parts of Europe and, specifically, across Latin America.

In July, the U.N. Development Program said income inequality has declined measurably in 16 out of 17 nations in Latin America over the past decade.

U.N. analysts said the shift was “in large part due to the fact that Latin America is a worldwide leader in social programs that give financial aid to people living in poverty on the condition that their children stay in school and have regular medical checkups, including routine immunization.”

While a host of studies show that income inequality has risen steadily during the same period in the U.S., the decline in Latin America also may be attributed at least in part to context. The United Nations has noted that Latin America and the Caribbean represent “the most unequal region in the world.”

The thrust of Mr. Obama’s push for economic development worldwide, meanwhile, has centered largely on efforts to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a free trade pact with roughly a dozen Pacific Rim nations.

Mr. Obama likely will call during his speech for support of the trade deal, but his overall record on free trade has on par with, but not above, that of the world’s other powerful economies. Since Mr. Obama’s 2009 inauguration, there have been a total of 69 bilateral and multilateral international trade agreements. The U.S. has had direct involvement in just five of the agreements, including two — with Oman and Peru — largely put into motion by the Bush administration.

The U.S. was slightly more aggressive on the global free trade front under Mr. Bush, having enacted just six agreements during his eight-year tenure.

The administration did conclude free trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea during 2012, putting his administration roughly on par with Turkey, which has enacted six; China, which has enacted five; and Japan, which has enacted four free trade pacts during the past five years.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide