A State Department official has all but validated concerns that the Obama administration sees the United States as an unexceptional nation, morally equivalent to the world’s authoritarian countries and best served by self-loathing and supplication to tyrants for its purported sins. That is the implication of a dialogue between Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner and the communist government of China last week.
Posner, who runs the democracy and human rights bureau at the State Department, met with officials from Beijing on May 13 and 14 for the “U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue.” The forum was suspended for much of the previous administration because the Chinese government claimed its mere participation proved it took human rights seriously, even as the treatment of people within its borders worsened. Now Beijing has not only benefited from the veneer of legitimacy bestowed by the dialogue—it apparently has found a venue in which the U.S. conveniently flagellates itself.
At a briefing after the dialogue, Posner was asked by a reporter if the Chinese side brought up the recently passed Arizona law pertaining to illegal immigrants. To the surprise of those gathered, Posner remarked: “We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.”
We brought it up? Discrimination? This is appalling on several levels.
The new Arizona law is not discrimination and does not constitute a human rights abuse. Police in virtually every free nation have the ability to enquire if someone suspected of a crime has the legal right to be in their country. The law simply gives Arizona cops that ability. The amended act specifically precludes race as a factor to initiate or support an enquiry. Furthermore, an investigation can be initiated only after “lawful contact” between police and a suspect, such as when someone is detained for breaking another law. Suspicion of an immigration violation alone is not a legal reason to initiate action. The common-sense, reasonable nature of this recently passed law is why polls show most Americans support it.
Even if the misinformation about the Arizona statue were true, it would not compare to the intense, comprehensive and systematic infringement of human rights conducted by the unelected, illegitimate government in Beijing. This after all is the regime that recently used lethal force against scores of protestors in Tibet and East Turkestan. Tibetan nuns attempting to escape to Nepal were shot dead by Chinese border guards in 2006. Beijing routinely locks up those who dare call for democracy—or just for a more accountable government. During the 2008 Olympics, it sentenced elderly women who requested a permit to protest eviction from their homes to a year of “re-education through labor.”
If Mr. Posner was so eager to talk about the treatment of immigrants, he could have brought up the tens of thousands of refugees generously admitted to America each year because they face persecution elsewhere. This number reached 60,108 in 2008 according the Department of Homeland Security. Ironically, the largest portion of these—24%—were fleeing oppression in China. As it turns out, Beijing is rather less humane than the U.S. to those it considers illegal immigrants. North Korean refugees caught inside China, many starving and in search only of food, are repatriated forcibly and face time in brutal prison camps and sometimes death for their attempted emigration.
That the Obama administration cannot distinguish the reasonable Arizona law from the acts of merciless dictators indicates affliction by what Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the U.N., Jeanne Kirkpatrick, labeled “Blame America First.” That phrase still aptly describes the condition of those who believe the worst of our nation while overlooking the very real sins of our adversaries. Unfortunately, these people now dominate the highest levels of our government and foreign policy elite.
Aside from the repugnance of morally equating the Arizona law with what China does to people, this is also an ineffective approach to diplomacy and advancing human rights. It is naive to believe that preemptive self-criticism will lead to concessions from a counter-party in negotiations. There is no historical instance where ‘blaming America first’ prompted a repressive government to make verbal or real concessions on human rights in return. Authoritarians are more likely to see this instead as U.S. weakness and view it as an indication they can continue their misconduct without consequence or even a public rebuke. That is quite likely the lesson Chinese diplomats took back to Beijing after their agreeable encounter with Mr. Posner.
Finally, it is not the job of federal officials to criticize, before foreign parties, the laws passed by the states. The State Department is supposed to act as an advocate of American interests, not a Washington-based repository of elitists that is embarrassed by the citizens it is supposed to represent. The Department’s opinion on domestic matters is required in precisely no instance.
Mr. Posner and his boss in the White House owe an apology to the people of Arizona—and to the citizens of the compassionate, generous and humane country they purport to represent.
Christian Whiton was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration and served as deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea. He is a principal at DC International Advisory.
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Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).