THE SPINE JANUARY 4, 2011
The ones I'm writing about are the idealists. Those who are stirred to action by the inhumanity of man to man.
Well, yes, I know that the Dalai Lama? can still draw a big crowd here and there in America. But the Tibetan cause -put on the map, so to speak, by Richard Gere and other Hollywood figures- is an ambiguous venture in that its objective is to restore an authoritarian clerisy to power. Better than "People's China," for sure. Still, while Klout designated Justin Bieber as the most influential person in the world, the 14th Dalai Lama came in second. Lady Gaga came in third and our president, Barack Obama, registered on the intricate matrix as number four. I confess to not having known who Bieber is but I quickly found out. As for Obama, at least on an estimate of power and influence, he would be further down the list than Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden and maybe even Mark Zuckerberg.
As it happens, after embarrassing prevarications and excuses, the president did see the holy man and more or less pacified the crowd that measures commitment to the human rights cause by symbolic gestures towards the idea of a free Tibet.
And, to be sure, the other imprisoned country, Burma, personified not by an abracadabra saint but by a pampered aristocratic lady has also gotten some de rigueur American attention.
My point is that across the depths of Africa--from Egypt in the north to Zimbabwe in the south (and dare I say South Africa itself?) and in Congo and Sudan and a dozen countries besides--the killers and the humiliators are free to kill and humiliate without even a chastising from the United States. So where are the idealists and youthful human rights champions? Nowhere. Darfur was only an issue when they could taunt George Bush about it.
Jackson Diehl has written a column in the Washington Post on the Obama administration's "critical silence on human rights."
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September Barack Obama suggested that his administration's notoriously weak defense of human rights around the world would be invigorated. "We will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless," he said. He went on to urge other democracies: "Don't stand idly by, don't be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protestors are beaten."
Just over two months later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Bahrain, an important Persian Gulf ally that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The emirate was in the midst of a major crackdown on its opposition. Two dozen dissidents, including intellectuals, clerics and a prominent blogger, had been rounded up, charged under anti-terrorism laws and allegedly tortured. A human rights group that had received U.S. funding was taken over by the government. [...]
Clinton's response? Extravagant and virtually unqualified praise for Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family. "I am very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts - economically, politically, socially," she declared as she opened a town hall meeting. Her paeans to Bahrain's "commitment to democracy" continued until a member of parliament managed to gain access to the microphone and asked for a response to the fact that "many people are arrested, lawyers and human rights activists."
Oh, of course, Hillary is a realist. Which means she and her boss and we will do nothing for human rights.
Clinton's condescending reply was a pure apology for the regime. "It's easy to be focused internally and see the glass as half empty. I see the glass as half full," she said. "Yes, I mean people are arrested and people should have due process . . . but on the other hand the election was widely validated. . . . So you have to look at the entire picture."
So much for a fresh start on human rights. Clinton's Bahrain visit reflected what seems to be an intractable piece of the Obama administration's character: a deeply ingrained resistance to the notion that the United States should publicly shame authoritarian regimes or stand up for the dissidents they persecute.
Yes, Obama made a public statement the day an empty chair represented Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel peace prize ceremony, and both he and Clinton issued statements last week when Russia's best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted on blatantly trumped-up charges. But in all sorts of less prominent places and cases, the U.S. voice remains positively timid - or not heard at all.
Will any of Obama's supporters mount a protest in front of the White House in behalf of the millions and millions of people who have been betrayed by this so idealistic president?