Afghan policy a litmus test for realism vs rights?

The Taliban may be a serial repeat offender of human rights in general and of women’s rights, but moral considerations are not looming large in current debates about Afghan strategy.

President Barack Obama’s address speech tomorrow provides an opportunity not only to make the case for sending more troops to Afghanistan, but also to respond to criticism that the administration is overly realist in its foreign policy.

Politico.com carries an insightful assessment of the realist turn in Democratic foreign policy circles and within the party’s base. It also quotes democracy and human rights activists’ concerns that its engagement fetish is blinding the administration to the political utility of a forceful approach to human rights:

Engagement is one of the most bloodless, uninspiring, and virtually meaningless concepts in American foreign policy. It’s just a process,” said [Human Rights Watch’s Tom] Malinowski. “He [Obama] ran on a process because we had a president who ignored the process. But you need both means and ends, and the means are often uninspiring and boring and plodding and bureaucratic, but the ends have to be inspiring to capture people’s imagination and win their support.”

Others said the White House has forgotten President Bill Clinton’s successful use of human rights not just as a public relations tool but as a diplomatic cudgel against international bad actors.

“It’s a mistake,” said one former Clinton administration official of Obama’s approach, “because human rights create some of the most innovative diplomatic tools the U.S. has. The creation of the war crimes tribunals allowed us to remove some obstructionist actors” in the Balkans, and their threat helped push aside a Haitian junta, he said.

Read the whole thing.

Meeting the Uyghurs’ one-woman force field

Meeting Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer was a personal ambition for Hugh Pope ever since he visited Xinjiang in 1999, he writes in News from Tartary. He made the connection following a recent discussion at the National Endowment of Democracy which, he notes, “bravely and rightly gives Mrs Kadeer a helping hand, despite great pressure from China.”

Kadeer stresses the non-violent nature of the Uyghur cause. Her goal is to win the same status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama,” he observes. “as a one-woman human force field, working the world” from her base in Washington.

The Uyghurs, he notes:

….can only be included in the broadest of all possible definitions of the Middle East, since they are a distant Turkic-speaking Muslim people in Central Asia. Their claim to importance is that they are half the population of Xinjiang, itself one-sixth of China’s territory. The problem is that their 8 million population is a drop in the ocean of 1.3 billion Chinese. They are being crushed by fate, history, overwhelming immigration by ethnic Han Chinese and an extraordinarily strict and illiberal approach by Beijing, about which I wrote at length in Sons of the Conquerors.

Read the whole thing.

U.S. too timid in supporting Arab democracy?

Are Arab democrats and reformists losing confidence in the Obama administration? A recent spate of articles would suggest so.

The U.S. is committed to using “principled engagement” to promote democracy in the Arab and wider Muslim world, Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said recently.

But the Obama administration “often speaks as if it does not recognize the existence of an Arab reform movement,” writes The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl. He cites the frustrations of Kuwaiti parliamentarian Aseel al- Awadhi and Musa Maaytah, Jordan’s minister of political development, who were recently invited to Washington for a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Diehl criticizes the administration’s apparent aversion to the D-word, evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech at the Forum for the Future, ostensibly a forum to promote democracy, at which she announced a new Civil Society 2.0 project to empower grassroots civil society organizations:

The word “democracy” appeared nowhere in the speech, and there was no reference at all to the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations.

President Obama’s Cairo speech failed to address the underlying causes of autocracy and anti-Americanism, writes Fouad Ajami. In fact, the speech’s apologetic and self-critical tone were probably counterproductive since, “In the Islamic world, where American power is engaged and so dangerously exposed, it is considered bad form, nay a great moral lapse, to speak ill of one’s own tribe when in the midst, and in the lands, of others.”

But the administration could yet change course by drawing upon the American diplomatic tradition of “engagements made, wisdom acquired in the course of decades, and, yes, accounts to be settled with rogues and tyrannies,” he concludes.

Similarly, Thomas Friedman is frustrated at the strength and virulence of a toxic narrative prevalent across the Arab and wider Muslim world:

…  after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

It is a narrative that is encouraged by the region’s regimes, he notes, and which Arab liberals and democrats find equally paralyzing, but it should not undermine the U.S.’s drive for reform and democracy:

…for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.

Elliott Abrams takes President Obama to task for downplaying democracy, failing to articulate the case for democratic reform and for neglecting to openly engage with dissidents when visiting authoritarian regimes, as during his recent trip to China. It is possible to balance diplomatic considerations with expressions of solidarity and support for democratic voices, says Abrams,  a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration

Dealing with dictators was accepted as a necessity of world politics in the Reagan and George W. Bush years, and there was plenty of it, but exactly for that reason both presidents felt it critical to make our moral position clear. Those regimes were the ones who needed to apologize, not the United States; the end of those regimes was something we desired, because of our belief in peace and freedom; and the promotion of democracy was our moral duty and our political strategy

Arab public opinion is disappointed with Obama, Marc Lynch concedes:

But it isn’t because he hasn’t lived up to his predecessor’s commitment to democracy and reform………The reason that a growing slice of the Arab public is disappointed with Obama is pretty clearly not because of his attitude towards democracy but because they feel that he is not delivering on his promises to change American foreign policy from the Bush era. 

Tamara Cofman Wittes, recently appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, dismisses the charge of strategic retreat. The Obama administration is pursuing a new strategy, she told the NED conference on Arab democrats, responding to local needs and demands through more calibrated and innovative approaches to democracy support.

Iran: call for twin-track strategy on nukes – and support for Green opposition

The Islamic Republic is now intensifying its ideological assault on Iran’s embattled democrats and reformists through a “soft war” or aggressive campaign of countersubversion. This battle for hearts and minds not only involves closing opposition publications and web sites, but placing Basij militia instructors in schools, giving the Revolutionary Guard more control over media , and greater surveillance of the Internet.

“The enemy has put soft war on its agenda and the top priority today is to fight the soft war,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state TV at a meeting with Revolutionary Guard and Basij leaders.

The strategy may enjoy some initial success in silencing voices for change, but its long-term prospects are dubious, analysts suggest.

“By trying to gain more control of the media, to re-Islamize schools, they think they can make a comeback,” says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert at Syracuse University. “But the enemy here is Iran’s demographics. The Iranian population is overwhelmingly literate and young, and previous efforts to reinstall orthodoxy have only exacerbated cleavages between citizens and the state.”

Violence, show trials and incarcerations may have taken some of the momentum from Iran’s Green protest movement, but its recent successes in hijacking the regime’s officially-sanctioned demonstrations confirmed that it has not been suppressed.

News that the regime is defying the international community by accelerating its nuclear program has cast further doubt on the likely efficacy of engaging Tehran. The West in general and the Obama administration in particular have been criticized for neglecting Iran’s opposition for fear of offending or alienating the Islamic Republic, but solidarity with the green protesters appears increasingly attractive and feasible.

With more sanctions unlikely to work, support for the fledgling opposition movement “may prove to be a far more potent way to confront the Islamic republic,” writes Massoumeh Torfeh:

Nuclear experts tell us that if all went really well it could be a decade or more before any new uranium enrichment sites come online – and probably much longer, given Iran’s slow track record. This leaves plenty of time for the development of a viable political alternative by Iranians.

“If foreign governments deal only with the atomic bomb and forget about democracy and human rights in Iran, they will help dictatorship,” says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled representative of the green movement.

The opposition supports “smart sanctions” targeted at the Revolutionary Guards and other bastions of the regime. The hard-line Guards are estimated to control as much as 40% of Iran’s economy.

Many Washington analysts, including some within government, who believe that the opposition movement is “either dead or does not deserve to be taken seriously,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

While sympathetic to claims that explicit support might undermine the opposition and feed regime claims that it is a creature of foreign powers, eh supports an adjustment to the US administration’s approach.

“We should certainly refrain from employing policies that dampen the momentum of the green movement, or alter its trajectory,” he said. “This means treading carefully on ‘engagement,’ broadening the conversation beyond just nukes and avoiding military confrontation.”

The Obama administration should use the European Union, Iran’s largest trading partner, to engage the regime while also supporting the opposition, say Paula J. Dobriansky, U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2001 to 2009, and former State Department official Christian P. Whiton. The democratic West should be doing more “to engage and cultivate this newly vocal ‘other Iran,’ sustaining its calls for a democratically chosen government,” they write.

History confirms that it is possible to pursue a twin-track strategy, negotiating nuclear security issues while pressing for democratic reform.  “Some of the West’s greatest strides in arms control with the former Soviet Union, for example, came in the 1980s, when the West was pushing the country hardest on human rights issues,” they note.

Thanksgiving Holiday Reading

The internet is supposed to empower citizens and undermine authoritarian regimes. But Evgeny Morozov challenges the conventional wisdom and details How dictators watch us on the web.

Roger Cohen examines Obama’s Foreign Policy Labyrinth in the New York Times, while Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh believes Obama’s Foreign Policy Needs a Reset.  Russia is Regressing into its Stalinist Past, write Guriev & Tsyvinsky in the Moscow Times, but Poland Makes a Break with the Communist Era writes Andrew Curry in Der Spiegel.

Hat tip: RealClearWorld