Elliott Abrams on Hypocrisy

By James Fallows

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..."

Second, the substance of the unnamed official's comments -- that while the U.S. respects the Taiwanese public's right to choose its leaders and policies, the U.S. is not in favor of "separatist" movements in Taiwan -- has in fact been the view and policy of every U.S. Administration from Richard Nixon's onward, including those Abrams worked for.

"Separatist" goes in quotes because of the "constructive ambiguity," in Henry Kissinger's phrase, that has characterized official U.S. discussions of Taiwan for nearly 40 years, since Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique. The mainland government considers Taiwan part of the People's Republic; the government on Taiwan considers itself a separate entity. In principle, they disagree fundamentally. But in practice, day by day and year by year people and organizations on Taiwan and the mainland interact more and more thoroughly. Factories throughout southern China are owned and run by Taiwanese; airlines now can have direct flights from Taiwan to mainland cities, rather than having to detour through Hong Kong or Macau. Nearly all involved in this interaction realize that the main thing that could upset it would be a push for formal independence by Taiwan. The mainland government would have to react to that move, and the United States would have to react in turn.

The resulting posture of "constructive ambiguity" is logically ugly but has been strategically effective. If all parties avoid talking about the one big conceptual issue on which they disagree, they can engage in countless practical ways. And this is why George W. Bush himself, at a White House event with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003, said almost exactly the same thing as the current unnamed official:

"The United States government's policy is one China...And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

This was the serving president of the United States, at a live meeting in the Oval Office, sitting next to the premier of China -- not someone giving a blind quote that might or might not reflect U.S. policy. And if the blind quote was "an amazing kow-tow," what was that comment by Bush?

For a much better explanation of what is at stake in Taiwan, see this recent item by Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment. Or after the jump see a cartoon by our old friends at Next Media Animation in Taiwan, who convey the conflicting pressures on Obama, the Taiwanese leaders, and the mainland government in an irreverent but realistic way.

I'd probably disagree with Elliott Abrams on most things even if he made his points differently. But it was the style of his argument, on our site, that I felt justified a response.

--- From Next Media Animation of Taiwan:

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/09/elliott-abrams-on-hypocrisy/245319/