Published October 10, 2009
This year, Barack Obama hit a home run to start the political season as the first African-American elevated to the Oval Office -- a feat surpassing even the national impact of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball's color barrier in 1947. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee may not agree, but it's safe to say that Obama's rookie season -- so far at least -- has not been as good as Jackie's.
Conventional political scorecards on Obama's presidency show a mix of hits and errors on the make or break issues of the economy, health care, the Mideast including unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While most of the media is focused on Chicago's unsuccessful 2016 Olympics bid, the Administration's bigger failure may be the decision not to welcome his Holiness the Dalai Lama this week before Obama's upcoming face-to-face with China's President. After nine months in office-- and despite hopes he may eventually deliver on the promise of the Peace Prize -- it's time to ask our president to go to bat for global human rights.
Barack Obama may have received a mandate in November 2008 to withdraw militarily as soon as prudent from Iraq -- but there's no evidence that American voters expected or wanted him to beat a wholesale retreat on the human rights front. At a time when the fate of the Soviet dissidents and refuseniks hung in the balance, President Jimmy Carter did the right thing by moving human rights to the center of America's foreign policy agenda. President Ronald Reagan kept it there by challenging Prime Minister Gorbachev "to tear down the Wall" that, under President George Herbert Walker Bush, fell in a resounding triumph for America's leadership. And in their different ways, both President Clinton and President George W. Bush kept momentum behind America's global freedom agenda.
Obama gave Venezuela's "el presidente for life," Hugo Chavez, a smiling handshake, while the State Department has chosen to ignore the political prisoners in the Castro brothers' bastilles. Worse still, the Obama administration hardly uttered a peep encouraging the historic "Green Revolution" protesting Ahmadinejad's theft of the Iranian presidency. The highly-applauded remarks about democracy as a fundamental human right in Obama's Cairo speech have proven a throw-away line with no follow up. Burmese junta member Nyan Win has been given a visa to visit Washington as well as the U.N. General Assembly in New York, while human rights crusader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Myanmar.
And now -- to cap its blindness and deafness to human rights -- the Obama White House has stiffed the Dalai Lama. For the first time since 1991, there will be no presidential welcome mat for Asia's human right's conscience -- at least not until after Obama meets with China's President Hu Jintao next month.
Back in Jackie Robinson's day, President Harry Truman won a surprise 1948 victory by containing the Soviet Union while continuing New Deal programs and even placing on the liberal wish list Obama's still-unfulfilled dream of national health insurance. The Marshall Plan and NATO Alliance were only part of Truman's foreign policy legacy. As President Obama tries to renew America's global franchise in the twenty-first century, he ought to ought to redouble our commitment to the third leg supporting Truman's winning global formula: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairwoman of the United Nation's Commission on Human Rights called it "the Magna Carta of all men everywhere" and later by Pope John Paul II "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time," the Human Rights Declaration during a half century of both Democratic and Republican Administrations put the U.S. at the forefront of the struggle for tolerance and human decency everywhere. A muscular human rights agenda -- a secret weapon in the arsenal of every president since World War II -- will complement rather than contradict President Obama's goal of advancing America's interests abroad. Without such a commitment, the only applause Obama will be hearing is from the wrong dugout.
Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Center.