Clinton, Gates offer distinct messages on human rights in Asia
Perhaps it is a coincidence of timing, but the Obama administration on Thursday appears to be sending two potentially contradictory messages about humans rights in Southeast Asia.
There was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Hanoi, chiding the communist government for its human rights record even as she celebrated 15 years of renewed ties.
And there was Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates next door in Indonesia, announcing the U.S. military would resume relations with the country's elite special forces, which were blamed for atrocities and repression during Jakarta's years of authoritarianism.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the administration was "schizophrenic" in its approach to human rights in Asia. "How is it that on the same day that Clinton makes some of the best rhetoric on human rights in Vietnam that Gates eviscerates
the standards" for judging whether Indonesia's Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus, has reformed, she asked.
The administration appears to be suggesting that Indonesia and the Kopassus have changed, 12 years after military ties with the United States were suspended, making Jakarta an object lesson for countries like Vietnam that still must make the transition to democracy. Richardson argues the decision on the Kopassus was based not on facts, but geopolitics, making it a "real game-changer" that would send a bigger message around the world than Clinton's language in Vietnam.
The Obama administration came into office saying it would handle human rights differently than the Bush administration, which had made the advocacy of democracy a guiding principle but then tended to look the other way if potential allies were helpful in the war on terror.
Clinton, on her first overseas trip, caused waves when she said promotion of human rights in China would have to take a back seat issues such as climate change and the financial crisis. Administration officials at the time said the White House was taking a more subtle approach on human rights, first seeking to reestablish U.S. credibility by pledging to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then working behind the scenes to advance change overseas.
During the campaign, in fact, Obama had signaled he would take a more "realist" approach to foreign policy, focused on U.S. interests, in contrast to the idealism of Bush years.
In recent months, the Obama administration has toughened its rhetoric on human rights in China.
But months later, Richardson finds the approach wanting. "I vaguely recall a cold, sunny day when I was really happy," she said, referring to Obama's inaugural. She has now decided there is just one difference between the Bush and Obama approaches.
"In the Bush administration, we saw them seek military allies regardless of human rights abuses in pursuit of the war on terror," she said. This administration, she said, "will seek military alliances regardless of human rights abuses -- in response to China."
| July 22, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
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