President Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly today was divided into three sections. He opened with a discussion of the international financial crisis which, rather jarringly -- and for no apparant reason beyond the stylistic convenience of linking Ground Zero and Wall Street in a speech delivered in Manhattan -- seemed to elevate economic insecurity to the level of terrorist threats. The middle section was devoted to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, where he expressed hope that "when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to... an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." I'm not sure why stating such maximalist ambition is necessary; would it be so terrible to admit that there's room for incremental progress on this front?
The final third of the speech was an eloquent call for the spread of liberty, democracy, and human rights. And the things that Obama said about this are the sorts of things that an American president ought to be saying. But does the President plan on, you know, doing anything about these issues? Ellen Bork, Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, notes that Obama's policies in the past two years "have favored engagement with America's autocratic foes at the expense of democracy activists and America's democratic allies." Bork lays out some concrete policies Obama can pursue if he means what he says:
China -- In advance of General Secretary Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this January, seek the release of political prisoners, including but not limited to Liu Xiaobo, who are vital to a democratic transformation of China’s communist system; and meet with Chinese human rights activists in China and the U.S.
Egypt – Press the Egyptian government to permit international election observers in upcoming elections; make constitutional and legal changes to permit free, fair and transparent elections; and meet with Egyptian democracy activists.
Russia – Deny visas to Russian officials involved in human rights abuses, as proposed by Senator Ben Cardin; end U.S. participation in the Civil Society Working Group, which is fatally compromised by the co-leadership of Putin aide Vladislav Surkov; and respond personally and publicly to the crackdown on human rights activists and opposition figures over the past few months.
Iran – Demonstrate unequivocally that his administration will support the efforts of the Green Movement to advocate for change within in Iran through increased U.S. funding and technological support.
It would be nice to see the Obama administration pursue this agenda (particularly regarding Iran and Egypt, as the threat of radical Islamism makes reforming the political culture of the Muslim world our most pressing priority). Alas, it's not clear that this President has the confidence in American hegemony that these sorts of policies require.
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