Elliott Abrams on Hypocrisy

It's unfortunate when a cartoon video presents a more nuanced and accurate version of reality than does something on the Atlantic's own site. But that has happened today, and for the record I wanted to note my preference for the cartoon.

In an item for our International channel, Elliott Abrams -- once of the Reagan and George W. Bush Administrations, now of the Council on Foreign Relations -- declares flatly that "Now in its third year in office, the Obama Administration has never championed the cause of human rights." I object to this, on two grounds:

1. Vulgarization of Thought. A big problem in modern political discourse is the conversion of morally complex issues into oversimplified, absolutist, accusatory statements. I think that is what Abrams is doing here: deliberately vulgarizing an issue he knows is harder than he is letting on.

Anyone who has thought even briefly about U.S. human rights policy should recognize how many complexities and tradeoffs it entails. It's an inherent tension; it arises because the United States has both interests and ideals. A dictator mistreats his people but sides with us on global issues. Is it moral to stick with him? (And what if that dictator is Stalin, and the larger cause is beating the Nazis?) An opposition group gains traction against an autocrat. But what if that group has its own extremist agenda? (Even the loathsome Taliban originally presented themselves as reformers who would protect the Afghan public against ruthless warlords.)

You can make your own list of a hundred similar hard choices. As could Abrams himself, from his time in government. From the earliest days of the Republic, weighing interests against ideals has been the hardest intellectual and moral challenge in U.S. foreign policy.

You could disagree with the way a given leader has set the balance. For instance, I don't like the way the George W. Bush Administration set a crucial part of the balance with China. (In brief: during the early days of its "Global War on Terror" strategy, the Bush team essentially blessed the Chinese government's view that Muslim dissidents in the far western Xinjiang region should be considered part of the world Islamic-terrorist threat. This had many destructive effects.) Elliott Abrams can argue that the Obama Administration has set the balance the wrong way. But to sum this up as "hypocrisy," or to claim that Obama has "never" championed human rights, just contributes to the bumper-stickerization of public life.

Why do I bother to bring this up? Because there is a huge class of issues that are hard enough in the best circumstances -- and that become impossible if over-simplified, caricatured, and subjected to scare rhetoric. Abrams has taken this reductionist approach before on our site. For instance, last year, in an online discussion on whether Israel might preemptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities, he dismissed opposing views this way: "Marc Lynch's essay this morning is quite long, but necessarily so: in addition to discussing Jeff [Goldberg]'s article, he needs room to make sure that we get the real point, which is to blame Israel for everything. Everything."

"Everything"? "Never"? No policy "at all"? Again, these issues are hard enough without public intellectuals intentionally de-intellectualizing them.

2) Historical Amnesia. Abrams gives two recent illustrations of Obama's lack of a human rights policy. One is Bahrain, where (as with Saudi Arabia) the tensions between American ideals and interests are obvious -- and have been, whichever party has controlled the White House. The other is Taiwan. He says:

>>Last week as well, the Obama Administration made an astonishing kow-tow to China and intervened in free elections in Taiwan. The Financial Times of London reported this:
'The Obama administration has warned that a victory by Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese opposition leader, in the island's January presidential election could raise tensions with China. A senior US official said Ms Tsai, the Democratic Progressive party leader who is visiting Washington, had sparked concerns about stability in the Taiwan Strait, which is "critically important" to the US.'...
What a picture! We intervene in Taiwan where there are free elections, and remain far too quiet on Bahrain where there are manifold abuses. When Bahraini human rights activists see a double standard, they are close to the truth: the Obama Administration appears to have no coherent human rights policy at all.<<

Yes, what a picture. Two points here. First, the unnamed "senior U.S. official" quoted in the FT may or may not speak for "the Obama Administration." When Senator James Inhofe asked the State Department to respond to the same FT story, he got this reply: "The 'official' mentioned in this [Financial Times] article is totally unknown to us and certainly does not speak for the Obama administration." That quote comes from the Taipei Times, whose account is chock-full of info about the possible background for this story. And Forbes recently had this:

>>In response to a question about the official's reported comments, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner reiterated long-standing U.S. assertions that it will steer clear of Taiwanese internal politics.

"We strongly support Taiwan's democracy and the will of the Taiwanese people to choose their leaders in the upcoming election," Tomer said. "Our only interest is in free, fair and open presidential elections. We don't take any sides."<<

Whatever is going on here, it is a lot less stark and crude than "an astonishing kow-tow..."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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