12/31/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2013

Our Failed Human Rights Policy

The United States has never understood that its attitudes about individual rights have no place in most parts of the world. This has led to two unfortunate outcomes. First, we are confronted by our own hypocrisy; and second, unforeseen consequences beg the question of what sort of Pyrrhic victory we were willing to accept to foist something on someone who didn't want it in the first place.

The second outcome is exemplified by the adoption imbroglio we now face with Putinesque Russia. Our government, unhappy with both the Russian justice and penal systems, decided that it would make a point by barring certain Russians from traveling to the United States if they were human rights violators. We felt entitled to do this because we have developed an infallible method for doling out perfect decisions in every court case, and because everyone in our prisons ends up rehabilitated and never gets raped.

Who in his or her right mind thought that the former KGB agent and president of Russia would simply accept our rebuke without response, or that the response would not be designed to make a point? Russia has already been castigated over the care of its orphans, and the American attitude that we are saving these children from the clutches of unfeeling Dickensian monsters in the country of their birth does not soothe Russian sensibilities. Hence, the one-two punch of stopping American adoption of Russian children.

Our attempt to reform the Russians is all the more difficult to justify when one looks at how much slack we cut our supposed friends and allies. As India explodes over its horrific rape crisis, where is the relentless outrage of our female Secretary of State? How many little boys need to be sexually abused in Afghanistan, something to which any American in the field will attest, before we add conditions to our military and financial aid for that country? When do we get the Palestinian issue straightened out so that it stops being a millstone around our necks?

In any event, the whole question of human rights is much more complicated than our facile attempt to attribute them to some divine bequest. If human rights are God-given, whose God? Do atheists have no rights? What inalienable rights are there, anyway? There isn't a right in this country that isn't modified by law in some way. And if we're going to preach, we'll have to face a legacy of having been in the caboose when it came to ending slavery and granting universal suffrage. Many of us remember all too well the passage of a civil rights act and the abolition of poll taxes, and we should all be ashamed of the language sometimes aimed at our president and our gay population.

Unfortunately for the crusaders, the "human" part of the term carries more weight than the "rights" part. Humans and their societies are simply too varied in their priorities, both cultural and religious, to be governed by a single standard. Democracy is difficult and needs much practice. Some societies see no point in it. Even when mastered to some degree, it is perverted frequently enough to lead some societies to rue the effort. In our own relatively successful experiment, how does one justify gerrymandering? In a country that solidly elected a Democratic president and Senate, why do the Republicans have such a substantial hold on the House of Representatives? Does it not make a mockery of the one man/one vote ideal?

We will never have sufficient troops to enforce human rights across the globe, nor have we the right to do so. There is no one type of government, one religion, or one set of human rights that fits all. Preaching becomes tedious, and if we adopt the "He who is without blame... " standard, we're really out of luck. So, if we're going to criticize, fine, but let's understand that the outcome may bear no resemblance to that which we hoped to accomplish.