Nobody would accuse Barack Obama of speaking softly, but he carries a heckuva big shtick. The shtick was audibly on display on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last year. In the peroration of that speech Obama avowed that the love that was preached by Gandhi and King “must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.” Heavy, man.
Before pointing to his North Star, Obama defended his policy of “engagement.” It is a policy that has been on display most notably with his deference to “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which has not yet tired of sticking its thumb in Obama’s eye. Thank goodness for the North Star that is guiding Obama on his journey or he might do something about that thumb in his eye.
Gandhi and King figured prominently again today in Obama’s speech before the Indian Parliament. Obama chided India for its accommodation of Burmese tyranny:
Every country will follow its own path. No one nation has a monopoly on wisdom, and no nation should ever try to impose its values on another. But when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed–as in Burma–then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protestors and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade. It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.
Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community–especially leaders like the United States and India–to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries. It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It’s staying true to our democratic principles. It’s giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal. And it sustains the progress that in Asia and around the world has helped turn dictatorships into democracies and ultimately increased our security in the world.
Obama’s criticism of India applies at least as much to himself and his policy of engagement, especially engagement with Iran, as it does to India. Obama’s policy of engagement has not carried any payoff in the promotion of human rights. On the contrary, it has been predicated on downgrading human rights as an American concern. It has accordingly rendered him mute and then equivocal in the face of the outrages in Iran.
Obama’s slighting of the Dalai Lama recalls the worst of detente, when Kissinger persuaded President Ford not to meet with Solzhenitsyn. But what does Obama have to show for his deference to Chinese sensibilities? Obama’s forays on the world stage have amounted mostly to an exercise in alienating friends and amusing enemies.
Obama’s speech today consisted of many threads, all of which are worthy of consideration and comment. For the moment, I pick out his encouragement of India to speak up on behalf of human rights and democratic rule. It seems to me a powerful if unintended self-criticism, even if framed in Obama’s characteristic multicultural babble.
UPDATE: Reader Jim Osborn elaborates a point that follows from the multicultural babble in which Obama frames his point:
Obama claims, “No one nation has a monopoly on wisdom, and no nation should ever try to impose its values on another.” But immediately he negates this claim and says, “But when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed–as in Burma–then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent.”
The President cannot have it both ways. Either the United States and India agree to “impose” their values on another (Burma), because their values are not only common to these nations but are self-evident universal values. The President would be on shaky ground here, because in any other venue he would shun self-evident universal values. But I do not, and I’m sure at least 70 percent of the American people would not. But why is he not shy about saying such things in India and rather shy about saying anything similar on his home ground?
Part of the problem is the reference to “values,” which are relative, rather than to principles or “self-evident truths,” which supply a universal standard. Hey, as the title of the book says, We Still Hold These Truths (even if Obama doesn’t).