Obama's True Legacy: Propping Up Dictators

By praising Ethiopia’s repressive regime for being “democratically elected” last week, President Obama was driving home once again something that should be abundantly clear by now: His administration marks a radical departure from previous ones when it comes to democracy promotion.

On the contrary, the Obama legacy will be one of propping up dictatorial regimes around the world. His praise for the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn merely took to Africa what Obama and his foreign policy team have already done on a grander scale in Iran, Cuba and Burma.

To be sure, President Obama was standing next to Desalegn at a joint press conference in Addis Ababa when he spoke. Maybe he didn’t want to be a bad guest. And the President did add that the Ethipiopian government has “more work to do.” After a slew of criticism at home, he later also questioned why African leaders clung on to office rather than leave after their terms were completed.

But Mr. Obama didn’t have to go out of his way to call Desalegn “democratically elected,” let alone do it twice. Nor did he have to make excuses for his government’s horrendous human rights record by recalling the country’s past hardship and the relative infancy of its constitution.

Before leaving for Africa, human rights activists and think tanks had called on Mr. Obama to use his trip to promote economic and political freedom—something the president did only in the mildest of ways.

The Ethiopian government, for the record, has been roundly criticized by all major human rights organizations for holding sham elections in May in which Desalegn’s Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) claimed to have won 100 percent of the vote. Immediately upon Mr. Obama’s comments, the President of Freedom House Mark P. Lagon released this reaction:

"President Obama unfortunately was fundamentally wrong in his comments about the parliamentary elections Ethiopia held in May, in which the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won every seat.  Calling Ethiopia’s government democratically elected lowers the standards for democracy and undermines the courageous work of so many Ethiopians who fight to realize a just and democratic society."

And that’s just it. President Obama seems to have very little time for dissidents who fight brutal regimes in troubled lands. The reasons for that are many. My Heritage Foundation colleague Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert, brings up two when he tells me:

"President Obama seems uncomfortable with democracy promotion for two reasons. First, he wants to distance himself from President George W. Bush’s agenda, a significant plank of which was democracy promotion. Second, I think he is a product of a certain liberal worldview that believes the U.S.’s and West’s past sins, such as slavery and the Crusades, disqualify them from pushing their values abroad, as doing so implies that the U.S.-led West’s model is superior."

Meservey is right, except what liberals don’t seem to get is that they are turning on its head one of the huge achievements of classical liberalism: the Enlightenment promotion of the idea that some rights are natural, and thus universal.

The 18th century Enlightenment was all about the universal applicability of such natural rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of property. Except that to modern liberals, the Enlightenment was all about dead white men, so promoting their ideas is culturally insensitive. Ironically, they resemble in this sense the conservatives of the 18th century, who shared Edmund Burke’s belief in each nation’s particularism.

Only up to a point, of course. Liberals still want to push their pet causes on others. Unfortunately these don’t include democracy or traditional human rights.

David Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights under President Bush, sees the hand of National Security Adviser Susan Rice in the Ethiopia faux pas, saying Rice has “had a long-standing interest in Ethiopia and… was a huge fan of the late President Meles Zenawi, who was no democrat, to say the least.” Ms. Rice’s sympathy for African despots is well known.

For the most part, though, Kramer’s analysis is the same as Meservey’s: Obama’s problems with democracy are larger.

“For the first year I put it down to ABB, Anything But Bush—Bush did it, so it was bad,” Kramer told me. “But seven years on that doesn’t explain it anymore. He’s the president who’s shown the least interest in democracy and human rights since Richard Nixon. It’s sad. For someone who constantly extols his past as a community organizer, this is pretty unexplainable.”

- Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. The original piece can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikegonzalez3/2015/08/05/obamas-true-legacy-propping-up-dictators/.

About the Author

Mike Gonzalez Senior Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy