Obama Should Stop Talking to Tyrants

The Obama White House has made a greater effort than any U.S. administration in history in extending the hand of friendship to unsavory regimes. There is barely a tyranny on the face of the earth that hasn't been earmarked for "engagement" by the Obama team, from Tehran to Caracas to Khartoum.

But the Obama Doctrine is increasingly defined by a refusal to take an aggressive stand against despotism, and by the relegation of human rights concerns to the bottom of the well of foreign policy issues.

The promotion of human rights is a mere flicker on the radar screens of the Obama administration, and every effort is made to downplay its significance in dealings with hostile governments. In his address to both Houses of Congress in February at the start of his term, the new president made no mention at all of human rights.

Barack Obama has barely uttered a word since taking office about the mass starvation of North Koreans by Kim Jong-Il, the savage repression of the Burmese people by the junta in Rangoon, or the continuing state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe. Nor has he highlighted the suppression of political freedoms in China and Russia.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir have all been beneficiaries of Washington's softer approach on the world stage. Instead of broadsides from the United States, Washington has offered these three leaders respectively a polite video message, a summit handshake, and hints of a weakening of economic sanctions.

President Obama's much-hyped message to the leadership and people of Iran in March contained no references at all to the appalling human rights abuses in the country, glossing over one of the worst records in the Middle East. The Obama administration has also ignored the widespread repression of free speech and political rights in Venezuela, and went as far as welcoming the fraudulent re-election of Hugo Chavez in an official statement.

Even the genocidal regime in Sudan, responsible for up to a million deaths in Darfur and the recent expulsion of international aid organizations, has been designated as a potential ally for the United States. According to the Paris-based Sudanese newspaper, Sudan Tribune, President Obama's Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, stated at the end of April that "some sanctions are doing more harm than good", while declaring that "the USA and Sudan want to be partners and so we are looking for opportunities for us to build a stronger bilateral relationship."

This astonishingly naive approach to international affairs is being justified on the grounds that the United States is better off talking to its enemies than isolating them, and is sold to the American public as a pragmatic application of "smart power," the administration's foreign policy mantra.

There are many dangers inherent in the Obama strategy, including lending the veneer of respectability to dictatorships that crave international acceptance when none is merited. It is compounded by a willingness to seek membership of discredited human rights bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, which includes in its ranks an array of dictatorships. This approach will swiftly undermine the activities of opposition movements and non-governmental organizations operating in repressive societies, who rely upon the isolation of their governments within the international community to seek democratic reforms and political change.

Obama's diplomatic strategy also buys valuable time for regimes such as Iran to advance their nuclear programs, and erodes international pressure to strengthen economic and political sanctions. By adopting the European Union's policy of "constructive engagement" with Tehran, the United States has given President Ahmadinejad a new lease of life, with the Iranian tyrant acting in an increasingly aggressive and assertive fashion, with the knowledge the U.S. is now highly unlikely to use force against his nuclear facilities.

America's position as a superpower will be weakened by a failure to stand up to tyranny, and the rash embrace of odious dictators will ultimately tarnish Obama's image as a world statesman. A president who loses his moral compass and chooses to appease evil rather than confront it, will ultimately decline in credibility both at home and abroad, and leave his country more vulnerable to attack.

The long-term strength and security of the United States depends ultimately upon strong defences as well as the spread of economic and political freedom across the globe.

Barack Obama will quickly discover that America's real standing in the world depends not upon the degree to which he humiliatingly apologizes for his country's past policies, but upon the United States' ability to project its power to advance freedom and liberty across the globe.

Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in Human Events