One of America’s noblest attributes is the conviction that its foundational freedoms are not exclusive but the birthright of all mankind.
This was the message of President Kennedy as he proclaimed unity with Berliners. This was the message of President Reagan as he demanded that the Berlin wall be torn down. President George W. Bush declared: “Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and soul.”
President Obama, in his Cairo speech discussing the rule of law, justice, transparent government, and “freedom to live as you choose,” promised: “Those are not just American ideas; they are human rights and we will support them everywhere.”
But what happens when these global pledges collide with narrow, but critical, national interests? How must a president balance the promotion of democracy in a country with an oppressive regime from which he seeks momentous concessions?
That depends. It depends on the country. It depends on the importance of the concessions. Take some of the unenviable situations confronting the Obama administration:
If the country concerned is, say, Burma (Myanmar), the US government can be quite strident in its criticism of the repression of human rights there. In the grand scheme, Burma – despite rumors of collaboration with North Korea for nuclear weapons know-how – is not very important to the US.
China, by contrast, is very important to the US. It is America’s banker and a formidable nuclear-armed power. It is gobbling up oil around the world for its booming economy. It is building an impressive navy. It is flexing its political, economic, and military muscle. So when Mr. Obama went to China recently, he had to tip-toe around the issue of human rights carefully.
Iran presents a particularly difficult challenge. In a blatant denial of basic human rights, tens of thousands of citizens protesting a stolen presidential election and calling for democratic reforms are getting beaten up by government-directed thugs and suffering arrest and imprisonment.
While some have been killed, protesters remain courageous and unfazed. Their defiance has shaken the regime. Iranian nationalism is in play. Nobody can be sure whether this is the beginning of regime change.
Initially, Obama was carefully detached in his comments about the situation. As the violent crackdown on the demonstrators has become more deadly, he has become more vigorous in his support for free speech and free assembly in Iran.
It is a hugely difficult challenge for him. While his heart may go out to the students and other demonstrators, he is seeking engagement with a repressive government that appears intent on developing a nuclear bomb, or at least coming to the brink of being able to make one.
Such a capability would be threatening to Israel, since Iran’s bemusing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reaffirmed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement that the “regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” As a terrorist-backing regime that has inveighed against, and collaborated in, the killing of American soldiers in Iraq, a nuclear-armed Iran could be immensely threatening to the US. Al Qaeda has for years sought to acquire a nuclear bomb. One provided by Iran could wreak havoc if detonated in a large US city.
The first duty of an American president is to protect the American people. That means trying to ensure that Iran’s existing rulers do not use their nuclear technology for destructive purposes. In on-again, off-again negotiations, the Iranians have sent confusing, but suspect, signals.
While both Israeli and US leaders have warned that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations remains an ultimate option, it would produce havoc with regional and global order. It might also trigger negative, nationalistic reaction from the very Iranian protesters presently challenging the regime.
For Obama, forceful diplomacy with like-minded allies must be the immediate course against the Iranian regime. But democracy lies in the hands of the Iranian people.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.
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