On the last day of her trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke briefly of the place of human rights in American policy toward China. "Our pressing on those issues" - issues she didn't identify any more fully - "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate- change crisis and the security crisis," she said.
Cries of dismay quickly came forth from Amnesty International USA, New Students for a Free Tibet and Freedom House. Has the United States given up on championing human rights and democracy altogether?
Now it can be said in defense of Clinton's remarks that previous administrations of both parties, from the time of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, have given human rights, at best, a subordinate place in their dealings with China. And our past calls for China to observe human rights have been met for the most part with stony silence and acts of defiance. And the stricken American economy at this point is in need of continued Chinese purchases of Treasury bonds.
Still, for anyone with knowledge of American foreign policy over the last four decades, Clinton's remarks were jarring. It is one thing not to press a tyranny very hard on human rights; it is another thing to come out and say you're not going to raise the issue at all. It is a kind of unilateral moral disarmament. One arrow in the quiver of American foreign policy has been our pressing - sometimes sotto voce (as in the Helsinki Accords), sometimes in opera buffa ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!") - tyrannical regimes to honor human rights. Hillary Rodham Clinton has put that arrow over her knee, broken it in two and thrown it away.
She is not the only one. On this, as on other matters, she is following the lead of the man who beat her for the Democratic nomination. In his inaugural speech, Barack Obama made only the most passing mention of human rights. In his Feb. 26 speech to Congress, he devoted just 7 percent of his words to foreign and defense policy, and made just one mention of freedom.
He reportedly is poised to name as head of the National Intelligence Council a man who has endorsed China's 1989 suppression of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square. He has noted with cold indifference the success of the provincial elections in Iraq.
All of which brings to mind the report of a conservative blogger who watched George W. Bush's 2005 inaugural speech with a group of liberals. Every time Bush called for spreading freedom and democracy around the world, the crowd guffawed and groaned and jeered. For them, evidently, Bush was a figure of fun, and his calls for democracy and human rights laughable. The same people who decried his supposed authoritarian rule at home had nothing but contempt for his call for freedom and democracy abroad.
Beneath this stated contempt is, I think, something in the nature of secret guilt. Or rather, anger at the notion that Bush had stolen the issues of human rights and democracy from the liberals.
The desire to oppose the Iraq war root and branch, to denounce every aspect of it, imposed a duty to dismiss as laughable Bush's stated objective - set out eloquently before the decision to take military action as well as after it - of advancing democracy in the Middle East. A duty to side with those, like the National Intelligence Council nominee, who have long held that governance in the style of Saudi Arabia or Syria is the best that can be hoped for in that region, and the best for all concerned. A duty to dismiss with contempt, or simply to ignore, the rather remarkable strides of the Iraqis themselves made after enduring decades of brutal tyranny.
It's quite a turnaround. It was liberals who complained that the United States sided with too many tyrannies in the Cold War and who (in the person of Henry Jackson) insisted on holding up Soviet trade deals to aid those persecuted by the Soviet Union. It was Jimmy Carter who made human rights a plank in his campaign and made it his policy as president, even when it undermined U.S. allies.
Not even when the cause of human rights was taken up by Ronald Reagan, in the Philippines as well as against the Soviets, did liberals declare that we should be indifferent to the cause of expanding democracy and freedom in the world. But now they seem to have done so in the desire to repudiate root and branch every policy espoused by George W. Bush.
Perhaps someone should suggest that a stony indifference to the freedom of others is not a very liberal - not a very generous, not a very attractive - thing.
Michael Barone is a senior writer with U.S. News & World Report and the principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, published by National Journal every two years.
© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.