June 15, 2012 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights
White House press secretary Jay Carney has hit a tough patch -- what columnist Dana Milbank dubbed a Junius Horribilis of bad news for President Obama that's virtually impossible to spin into something positive.
But Carney should take heart. The administration's bad PR run is a cakewalk compared with what his counterpart in the Kremlin is facing.
For starters, Moscow is now seen globally as chief defender of Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad -- something akin to being Hitler's last friend. Last week, President Vladimir Putin signed a law slapping massive fines on anyone participating in public protests that aren't government-approved. And at the Euro 2012 soccer championships, Russian fans have already taken first place ... for riotous, racist behavior. The bad press keeps on coming.
So how's that Russian reset working, Mr. Obama?
Rather than restructure the U.S.-Russian relationship, this White House has done little more than watch Russia slide back into being just another corrupt, totalitarian, nuclear-armed troublemaker.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., recently pointed out. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it."
But the administration persists in its Pollyanna-ish view of all things Putin. Ever eager to reward Russia for mostly nothing, it backed Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization -- reportedly going so far as to pressure the nation of Georgia to settle a dispute that impeded Moscow's entry.
But the White House neglected to tidy up some critical matters here at home. Even with Russia becoming a made member of the WTO, Washington couldn't grant Moscow permanent normal trade relations status. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, passed in 1974, precludes it.
A powerful tool during the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik bars U.S. firms from doing business with countries that restrict freedom of emigration and other human rights. Designed primarily to help Soviet Jews win their freedom, the amendment is not well-suited to deal with today's human rights problems.
The smart move for the administration would have been to replace Jackson-Vanik with an updated human rights instrument -- before urging Russia to join the WTO. It would have been a simple matter for the administration to hold up accession (joining the WTO requires the consent of all members) until it had a replacement for Jackson-Vanik in place. The White House did not make the smart move.
Now, Washington has a problem. With Russia joining the WTO, U.S. companies could actually find themselves at a disadvantage in trying to do business in Russia.
Congress is trying to fix the problem. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Named for a corruption-fighting lawyer who died in a Russian prison, this Jackson-Vanik replacement addresses human rights abuses by targeting specific abusers. It would, for example, deny them U.S. visas and freeze all assets under the purview of the American government.
But, the White House doesn't want to pass the Magnitsky bill. It would upset Moscow.
Even as it lobbies to repeal Jackson-Vanik, the administration has been dissing Magnitsky with claims it would hurt American businesses. But Magnitsky is carefully designed to address "gross violations of human rights" without erecting new barriers to international commerce.
The White House is dead wrong. Replacing Jackson-Vanik is good for U.S. business and for human rights in Russia. Though, admittedly, it won't quell rowdy Russian soccer fans.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.
This article first appeared on WashingtonExaminer.com.