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Obama Makes Some Authoritarian Friends in Asia

Given the thumping that President Obama knew the Democrats would take at home this week, you can hardly blame him for deciding to hit the road with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and get as far from Washington, D.C. as physically possible.

No surprise, then, that Obama picked this Friday to set sail for a long-delayed four-nation tour of Asia--or that Clinton is already there. Of course, escapism isn't their only objective; it just happens that a few important meetings, like the G20 and ASEAN summits, are being thrown while they're in the neighborhood.

But while fleeing the Tea Party may help with the heartburn, Obama and Clinton can't expect a smooth reception in all ports. As if to underscore the point, this week Vietnam--one of the United States newest friends in Asia and the showcase of Washington's recent campaign to build a hedge against China by cultivating its nervous neighbors--decided to launch a highly visible crackdown of internal dissent shortly before Clinton arrives. Within a few days, the Vietnamese state arrested a number of activist bloggers and convicted six Catholics for protesting a government attempt to seize their cemetery and turn it into a tourist resort.

The arrests, and the administration's tepid response (Clinton raised the subject with the Vietnamese, but didn't suggest their thuggish tactics would affect the budding U.S.-Vietnam relationship) highlight what has become an increasingly problematic aspect of Obama's foreign policy. Even as the administration has made impressive efforts to reset ties with old foes like Russia, strengthen bonds with China, and simultaneously take advantage of the agitation China causes in its near abroad by solicitously courting China's neighbors, the administration is too often overlooking human rights in the process.

The issue has been a persistent theme since Obama took office--perhaps not surprisingly, given his professed realist leanings and declared admiration for foreign policy thinkers like Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush. But it has nonetheless disappointed many of Obama's allies on the left and his admirers abroad, who had expected his administration to make a clean break from the policies of its predecessor. Indeed, after several months of sustained attack from pundits and human rights organizations earlier in the year, the Obama team did shift its rhetoric, and start raising the subject of human rights more frequently. Clinton herself walked back what was probably her most notorious statement on the subject, a declaration in early 2009 that the United States shouldn't let human rights concerns "interfere" with its cooperation with China. But while the language has changed for the better (for example, after dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the decision and called on China to free him), too little has moved on substance. The administration continues to cozy up to unsavory regimes and rarely takes its human rights concerns beyond the rhetorical level--by making them a condition of foreign aid, for example, or requiring that they be addressed before other forms of cooperation are extended.

The most glaring recent example of this trend is Vietnam. It may be depressing (depending on your viewpoint) but it shouldn't be a shocker that Obama has failed to press Russia or China very hard on rights, given how little leverage Washington has with these powers--and how such pressure has backfired in the past.

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Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, deputy editor of Newsweek International, and deputy managing editor at Foreign Affairs. More

Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He has spent his career covering foreign policy and international news, both as a writer and an editor. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm. Before joining Eurasia Group, Tepperman spent three years at Newsweek, where he was the deputy editor of Newsweek International. In that post he helped oversee Newsweek's Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa coverage, top-edited the InternationaList section, ran the annual Davos Ideas issue, and wrote a regular style and luxury column, "The Good Life." Prior to that, he spent eight years at Foreign Affairs magazine, rising to the post of deputy managing editor.

Tepperman has written for a range of publications, including Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, as well as The New York Times (magazine, op-ed page, and book review), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, and others.

He has a BA in English literature from Yale University and law degrees from Oxford and NYU. Tepperman lives in Manhattan.

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