Human rights will never trump self-preservation

January 07, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Not long ago, one of Bill Clinton's top aides was explaining why the fight against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network never got the attention it deserved.

"Clinton was aware of the threat and sometimes he would mention it," former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told The New York Times.

But he preferred to focus on the "big issues," which were, according to Mr. Panetta, "Russia, Eastern bloc, Middle East peace, human rights, rogue nations, and then terrorism."

Human rights? Those are two words you haven't heard very often in relation to American foreign policy since Sept. 11. This is quite a change. Today, we can see what the luxury of peace obscured: The central duty of the U.S. government is not to propagate our ideals but to protect our security. Nothing else even comes close.

Not long ago, promoting democracy and liberty around the globe was enshrined as one of our chief missions in this world.

In 1992, Mr. Clinton set the tone he wanted for his administration when he attacked President Bush for "a foreign policy that embraces stability at the expense of freedom" and insisted that "no American foreign policy can succeed if it slights our commitment to democracy."

Apparently the American people felt the same way.

Slighting our commitment to democracy, however, has been an indispensable and uncontroversial element of our war against terrorism. Pakistan was under U.S. sanctions for the military coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power, but they were lifted after the general became our best friend.

No one said boo when we entered into a military partnership with Uzbekistan - an authoritarian state criticized for its "poor human rights record" in the State Department's most recent annual report.

Russia's brass-knuckle methods in Chechnya were a big concern at the State Department and the White House until mid-September, but now Mr. Bush treats Vladimir Putin like his favorite frat brother.

There has even been talk about lifting the sanctions we imposed on China after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which would be a way of saying thanks for Beijing's cooperation with our efforts in Afghanistan.

We've made cow eyes at the government of Iran, which has a habit of referring to the United States as the "Great Satan," because it hated the Taliban as much as we did.

As for Saudi Arabia ... well, actually, even under Mr. Clinton, we never got around to worrying about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Oil made it too important to let such considerations get in the way.

In recent months, the Saudi Arabia formula has been applied to all sorts of countries that possess deeply imperfect human rights records. We are no longer terribly choosy about the character of those who help us. Our only question is: Whose side are you on? Our view of brutal, undemocratic dictators is that we'd much rather have them as friends than as enemies.

The previous obsession with what should be a peripheral concern was not confined to Democrats. Lots of conservatives argued vehemently in favor of military intervention in the Balkans to protect lives and human rights. They pushed for the expansion of NATO - and of U.S. military commitments - mainly to support democracy in Eastern Europe. They expected, and seemed to welcome, a new Cold War with China because it refused to liberalize.

But our differences with China before Sept. 11 are now revealed to be grossly overdrawn. Any threat to American security from the "butchers of Beijing" turns out to be modest and limited compared to the genuine danger posed by the global terrorist network.

We had trouble seeing that before, mainly because we concentrated on the Chinese government's grimly authoritarian nature.

If they were evil at home, the assumption went, they must also be evil abroad. In fact, governments can be extremely unsavory without being dangerous or hostile to us.

During the Cold War, most Americans understood that fact, and preferred to side with right-wing autocrats against left-wing revolutionaries favored by Moscow. Today, in the Arab world, we tolerate repressive "moderate" regimes because we assume the alternative is repressive radical ones.

The point is not that we shouldn't care about the fate of people living in faraway places. We should, and judging from American attitudes over the last couple of centuries, we always will. Partly that's because free, democratic societies are more likely to be friends than enemies. Partly it's because the ideals of our revolution are universal human aspirations.

In the end, though, Americans are no different from anyone else in recognizing that a government has to protect its own people before it does anything else. We sometimes talk as if human rights are so important that they override all selfish considerations. But not when it really matters.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company.

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