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Balancing human rights and national interests

Opinion: Clinton's rhetoric in China raises questions about how the Obama administration will deal with its competing priorities.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo in the grounds of Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Feb. 21, 2009. (Greg Baker/Reuters)

Many chickens returned to roost over the past week at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, fowl born of promises and high-flown rhetoric during the campaign season that always looked unlikely to survive first contact with the enemy — that is, reality.

The first of these problems surfaced during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to China last week. She insisted that Washington would continue to speak out about China's repression of free speech and religious groups and its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities in the Muslim Xinjiang region and Tibet. Indeed, the State Department on Wednesday released its annual human rights report, and the section on China is filled with chapter and verse on just such abuses.

The second problem, long-predicted, is a retreat on President Barack Obama's promise to be out of Iraq 16 months after taking office. This always looked hollow whether or not you think withdrawal is a good idea. The new number — 19 months — is hardly a major retrenchment. But, along with the caveats reported in today's New York Times about troops who will remain in Iraq well after that 19-month period, it is yet another reminder that words and deeds are different things.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised not to let ideology prevent the United States from holding talks with its rivals and enemies abroad. But the move away from the Bush administration's embargo on such talks, while sensible, will run up against other promises, especially with regard to human rights.

In both of these cases, China and Iraq, and in several areas of foreign policy, the practical adjustments to policy being made by Obama and his advisors will anger and possibly even alienate some of his base. Democrats who railed at the ideological "democracy promotion" agenda of the Bush administration and demanded a return to "realpolitik" are getting just that: In Iraq, a realistic deadline based on what the military can do, not what it would like to do. In China, an unadulterated statement of U.S. interests in China, neatly prioritizing the economy, climate change and North Korea as numbers one, two and three on the table.

Those "surprised" by this either are either naive or simply putting on a show for the sake of principle. The annual berating of China by the State Department, for instance, has never prevented past administrations, Democratic or Republican, from sidestepping such issues in favor of issues deemed of greater importance to national security. And so, in keeping with that tradition, as the new Secretary of State put it in China, pressing on those issues can't interfere with the "global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

She insisted that Washington would continue to speak out about China's repression of free speech and religious groups and its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities in the Muslim Xinjiang region and Tibet, but said that pressing on those issues can't interfere with the "global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

Diplomats rarely speak so plainly, without nuance, about such issues, particularly when dealing with governments, like China, that are eager to view human rights issues as mere "distractions" from the larger geo-economic relationship Beijing wants to protect. And, I'd argue, there is nothing wrong with viewing the world that way. After all, this is a defensible approach to China policy given the enormous potential disasters involved in getting those top three priorities wrong: a) global depression, b) global environmental catastrophe, c) nuclear blackmail by the maniacal regime in Pyongyang.

But do you say it out loud?

Many who wished both the Obama and Clinton campaigns well during the presidential election claim to be aghast.

"Secretary Clinton's remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government — segregating human rights issues into a dead-end 'dialogue of the deaf,'" said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "A new approach is needed, one in which the U.S. engages China on the critical importance of human rights to a wide range of mutual security interests."

The conflict between what many Democrats see as the right thing to do and the desire to implement effective policies will be a constant companion to Obama administration policymakers. Setting aside the sniping from the left about personnel decisions — keeping Robert Gates on as defense secretary, appointing Lawrence Summers, the bete noir of Harvard feminism, as a top economic adviser — these dilemmas show that in some cases retaining Democratic support may be as difficult as courting Republicans.

For instance, the bold announcement to close Guantanamo Bay came along with an equally honest assessment estimating it would be at least a year before such a thing might happen. The ACLU's director, Anthony Romero, proclaimed his disappointment that Obama's Justice Department refused to end the use of the so-called "official secrets" tactic that prevents attorneys for Gitmo detainees from seeing the evidence against them.

On Russia policy, the olive branches being exchanged by Washington and Moscow also require a bit of nose holding. Vice President Joseph Biden's offer to "push the reset button" on U.S.-Russia ties requires swallowing a Russian veto on Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership, as well as the drastic slippage in political rights domestically which has, by and large, turned Russia into a virtual one-party state once again.

These disappointments come with the territory, of course. Bill Clinton famously chided George H.W. Bush for "coddling dictators" in China, then went on to forge the closest ties of the post-World War II era between Washington and Beijing.

But the overwhelming catastrophe of the global economic crisis has made catering to single-interest groups even more difficult for this new administration. Things just need to get done. So, if during Obama's visit to Canada last week, his avoidance of previous calls to "renegotiate NAFTA" brought anger from labor unions, so be it. If his level-headed decision to push European NATO forces aside in Afghanistan in favor of American troops unencumbered by limitations on their combat capabilities angered his party's Europhiles, that's life. And if his decision to step up air strikes inside Pakistan (which, to be fair, candidate Obama insisted he would do), has the anti-war movement crying foul, let them cry. If Afghanistan is winnable, and that is certainly up for debate, it is only winnable by denying the sanctuary of Pakistan to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. (For more on this, see: Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh trail).

It was never going to be easy to be the second elected American president of the 21st century. But there is, at least, evidence that this crowd knew what it was getting into. Said Biden last year during his dark horse candidacy for the Democratic nomination: "There is often a short-term conflcit between democracy promotion and our vital security interests."

Now that's truth to power.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/090223/balancing-human-rights-and-national-interests