- - Tuesday, February 2, 2016


During the mid-1970s, President Jimmy Carter began tying U.S. cooperation with other nations as much to Washington’s perception of their human-rights records as to the strategic interests of the United States.

A nation targeted for its human rights record not only got less warm-and-fuzzy stroking from the superpower with which it was aligned, but found itself in danger of U.S.-led international condemnation for its shortcomings.

The United States has always shown a proper concern over the way other nations treat their own citizens. But the connection Washington has made between its dealings with them and human rights has evolved to the point that the superpower’s willingness to interfere in the domestic affairs of friend and foe alike — even when its own interests play second fiddle — has cost it respect.

Later, President Bill Clinton adopted what became known as the “Clinton Doctrine,” which holds that the United States has the right to intervene in another country’s affairs to alleviate a perceived humanitarian crisis. The doctrine was used to justify the decision to bomb Serbia in the 1990s to protect the residents of Kosovo, with whom the Serbs were at war.

Under President George W. Bush, U.S. policy evolved further still to include an insistence on “regime change” and justification for the American use of force to oust leaders of other nations Washington sees as human rights violators.

This idea has led the United States to support regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria, support for the ouster of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and chaos in the Middle East.

A concern for the way other countries treat their own citizens is legitimate, but once the United States began linking its relations with other countries primarily to its assessment of their human rights records, it began down a slippery slope that, given the evolution of that policy, has become even more slippery.

This policy has cost Washington real or potential allies, and makes many otherwise-friendly nations resentful of Washington’s constant hectoring and insistence on grading their ongoing performance in this arena.

Kazakhstan, a loyal U.S. ally is a case in point. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed to a politically and strategically risky U.S. request to rid his country of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Nazarbayev also allowed Washington to send supplies through Kazakhstan to its troops fighting in Afghanistan. He even agreed to partner with the United States in running a facility in Kazakhstan to secure pathogens that the Soviet Union had been developing for use as biological weapons while sending a peacekeeping unit to Iraq in response to a U.S. request.

Although Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have praised Kazakhstan and Mr. Nazarbayev for this unparalleled cooperation, the U.S. State Department continues to assail Kazakhstan’s human rights record.

Kazakhstan is no Jeffersonian democracy, but what many in America fail to understand is that many developing countries, like my native Azerbaijan, find themselves in dangerous neighborhoods and face internal problems that history has allowed the United States to escape. Reform in such environments can be difficult; located in hostile regions and facing undemocratic political forces, their governments at times need to be firm and strong-willed to usher in positive change.

Democracy is not a one-day process, and the United States hurts not only its allies, but its own interest when it demands that others treat it as if it is. We all look forward to the day when freedom, democracy and transparency are the order of the day everywhere, but we know realistically that such a day is further off than most wish.

World leaders cringe when the U.S. State Department’s country-by-country human rights report is published each year, wondering how badly they are going to get skewered. Although the United States has alienated much of the world with its caustic reports on human rights, it is the notion of using regime change to protect human rights that has cost it the most global support.

Mr. Bush launched a second Iraq War to depose Saddam Hussein, naively believing they could replace him with a leader who would bring democracy to Iraq and make it a force for stability in the Middle East. It didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped.

Instead, Saddam’s ouster precipitated a civil war, claimed tens of thousands of military and civilian lives, made tens of thousands more homeless, and destabilized the Middle East.

If Washington wants to return to its role as a force for peace and world stability, it should stop beating up other countries and try harder to understand the realities on the ground.

Irada Guseynova is a member of the Russian and Azerbaijani union of journalists, former editor of Oasis, a periodical offering in-depth political analysis of Central Asia and a contributor to the Washington Policy Institute.

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