THE BLOG
08/15/2016 11:46 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2017

Obama's Weak Human Rights Record

Review of
A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton & John Kerry
Anne R. Pierce, Ph.D.
Post Hill Press, 2016, 400 pages

It is widely understood, particularly among peoples who have suffered the consequences, that the Obama administration's foreign policy has downplayed human rights and freedoms; has stressed "stability" over these principles, attempting to assuage dictatorships and murderous ideologies; and has met severe challenges with passivity and equivocation.

Anne Pierce is a University of Chicago educated political scientist, a successful author and a professional analyst of American foreign policy. Her writings are informed by an understanding that politics is not a science but a moral quest; that "value neutral" academic analyses fail to penetrate the reality of international politics, and abrogate their responsibility to make moral distinctions.

Her new book, A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, is a closely documented history of the Obama administration's wide-ranging foreign policy failures that also shows the sources of these failures in the moral blindness of Obama's post-modern cultural relativism and globalism. President Obama and his team have consistently downplayed individual rights in favor of a collectivistic orientation, paying attention mainly to group interests. Human rights have been interpreted broadly, not as individual freedoms as in the United States Constitution. Obama has demonstrated a "lack of passion for freedom." Like many leftist academics, he has embraced the falsehood that the United States under previous administrations sought to "impose human rights" as something uniquely American. He has "reversed the transnational movement toward more freedom, even denouncing its objective." Seeking to end conflict, he has been willing, even eager to compromise with some of the world's worst human rights abusers. His unilateral concessions have been interpreted - correctly--as weakness. He has squandered the potential of American power to do good by immersing and constraining it within ineffective multilateral efforts. America under Obama has punished its friends and rewarded its enemies. Strategic alliances have been neglected in favor of reliance on the "international community."

When Pierce lays out the cumulative (but, sadly, still unfolding) impact of these approaches, the result is shocking. The administration has downplayed anti-Semitism and the persecution of Christians, yet "American indifference made it easier for Islamist opportunists." Obama's equivocations (for example, calling Venezuelan dictator a "sociable guy") have made dictators more intransigent. American has sold arms to states that violate human rights like Bahrain and Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.

The "pragmatic" outreach to adversaries like the "reset" with Putin's Russia ("a government with amoral, antidemocratic priorities") has backfired, as the United States did little to deter aggression in Ukraine that resembles what Hitler did to Czechoslovakia; its response was "minimalist." Russia has outsmarted the United States in arms negotiations. Obama humiliated ally Georgia, leaving it to shift for itself against Russian aggression. The "reputation, influence, and the democratic standing of the United States has been compromised" by its failure to uphold promised missile defense in Central Europe.

Pierce concludes that Obama's Middle East policies have been a "debacle." Obama's "dilatory" lack of pressure on former Egyptian ruler Mubarak, followed by his supplicating outreach to and legitimization of Morsi, were part of a larger pattern of ingratiating himself to the Muslim world. Obama's clueless intelligence chief claimed the Muslim Brotherhood was a "moderate" and "secular" organization that "eschewed violence" and had no international agenda. State Department functionaries trained the Muslim Brotherhood to contest elections, and promoted ties with American Muslims. Conditions for military aid were waived for Morsi but reinstalled when millions of citizens deposed him, and non-Islamist strongman Abdel el-Sisi replaced him.

Obama relinquished leverage in Iraq, leading to escalating chaos and the spread of an even more deadly form of Islamism than Al Qaeda. He was passive when millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand human rights, creating the impression of cowardice and naiveté. Iran has subsequently "outplayed" the United States in nuclear negotiations. Obama courted Turkey's Recep Erdogan, claiming a "bond of trust" with a leader who is trashing the country's secular political norms and used a recent coup attempt to decimate the political opposition and civil society. Anti-Americanism is surging there.

Pierce's critique is most caustic when it comes to the Obama administration's "indifference" with respect to the bloody conflict in Syria, where about half a million civilians have died so far; for the most part, the United States has remained "idle and mute." Although Bashar al-Assad was considered the Middle East's most brutal autocrat who used terror tactics against civilians, America "catered" to Assad, with Hillary Clinton claiming he was a "reformer." When the regime massacred peaceful demonstrators and tortured children, moderate rebels forces begged for American help. But fearing entanglement, American officials made a preemptive announcement of nonintervention, giving Assad a blank check. Pierce quotes expert Anthony Cordesman who warned that largely moderate Sunni rebels were being driven to extremism; Islamists increasingly infiltrated the rebel movement, a problem that was then disingenuously cited by the administration as the reason for refusing to help the insurgents. Obama and John Kerry's "moral ambiguity" spiked with their "attempts to find solutions for Syria by collaborating with Russia...a key ally of the Syrian regime." Extremism has "metastasized" in the form of the Islamic State, not a terrorist organization so much as a terrorist army. But "whitewashing" the brutality of Iran, Russia and Syria won't help confront it.

The book includes concise but thorough summaries of the human rights situation in North Korea (DPRK) and in China, providing context for the analysis of US policies. According to Pierce, America has "looked the other way" and been "detached and apathetic" while North Korea has tightened its grip on its captive, brutalized population and built its nuclear arsenal. She blames "one-world socialism," which seeks a unified world free of conflicts, for contributing to the reluctance to work harder to free its people. "Polite" negotiations have failed, at totalitarians only use negotiations to buy time, and North Korea's nuclear weapons development has continued since it quit pretending and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Obama's engagement policy, which again downplayed the regime's totalitarian ideology and human rights atrocities, gave the DPRK "more opportunities for deception." The Obama administration generally avoided the subject of human rights in dealings with the DPRK, ignoring "the power of American principles and words." Attempts to normalize relations with the rogue state led to further humiliations when the North Koreans scuttled agreements.

The Obama administration has also "consistently downplayed" human rights in dealings with China, reflecting a tradition of "cultural relativism combined with a fondness for socialism...that consciously excuses communist repression." In 2009, on her way to China, Secretary of State Clinton said American priorities were economic issues, climate change, and security threats; human rights violations would not be allowed to block progress on those fronts. The Obama team stressed prosperity and international relations, rarely using words like freedom, liberty, or individual rights. Secretary Clinton stressed "economic statecraft," de-emphasizing the role of ideas. Pierce calls this a "policy of indifference," which also shows an indifference to America's founding ideas and ideals. Chinese positions stiffened up in response to America's "soft-power" approach, which confirmed that the United States under Obama was a paper tiger. While China built up a technologically advanced military, America retrenched. Crackdowns on human rights activism aroused only tepid criticism. While China pursued land-grabs in the South China Sea, the US proclaimed it America's most important partner.

Obama, Clinton and Kerry will leave "a more dangerous, more oppressive world," according to Pierce. I find her critique compelling. It is not partisan, but rather informed by her attachment to human rights principles that are the main foundations of America's political traditions. I have worked closely with Soviet dissidents who struggled for their human rights behind the Iron Curtain. A number praised Ronald Reagan, saying that when he denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," they felt someone had finally understood and spoken the truth; his words, they said, inspired them. Human rights communities in repressive states find no similar inspiration from Obama.

But A Perilous Path is more than a critique, and offers a positive vision of an American foreign policy that "combines moral and practical concerns." It is in the DNA of Americans to use the nation's moral and political power to assist people around the world seeking human rights, freedom, and democracy - in the tradition of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan. "The prevalence of groupthink degrades our traditions." Those leaders had confidence in the integrity of the American political ideal of individual rights, and its universal relevance. "Everyone," Anne Pierce insists, "deserves political freedom." America needs to be strong, to use its strength with restraint, and most importantly, American needs to "project its ideas of individual and human rights." If we do not take the lead, she writes, "those who hate democracy will." Indeed, under Obama, Clinton and Kerry, they have.

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007, and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project.