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Obama and the cause of democracy

For a long time now, I have worried that liberals and progressives would so react against President Bush's use of rhetoric about democracy that they -- we -- would retreat into pure realism. That's why I was heartened by President Obama's speech to the United Nations Thursday.

Lord knows, realism looks a lot better to some of us than it used to in light of the Iraq War, which did far more to weaken American power in the world than strengthen it. But the battle for human rights and democracy is and ought to be a central liberal and progressive cause. Liberals should not abandon their own honorable history just because Bush liked to talk about democracy, too, and used it to justify policies we disagreed with.

To say the United States must stand forthrightly for democracy does not mean we will seek to impose it by force. Nor does it mean we will never have unsavory alliances. We allied with Stalin against Hitler because of the moral and practical imperative of defeating Nazism. But the democratic idea is so central to what it means to be an American liberal, to be a progressive, that to give up on it as a moral cause is to abandon the core of our own commitments.

I have written before that I wanted the Obama administration to be more forthright in addressing democracy and human rights, so I was glad to see the president deliver this key passage:

The idea is a simple one -- that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings. And for the United States, this is a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity. As Robert Kennedy said, "the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit." So we stand up for universal values because it's the right thing to do. But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights -- whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments -- have chosen to be our adversaries.

Human rights have never gone unchallenged -- not in any of our nations, and not in our world. Tyranny is still with us -- whether it manifests itself in the Taliban killing girls who try to go to school, a North Korean regime that enslaves its own people, or an armed group in Congo-Kinshasa that use rape as a weapon of war.

In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom. We see leaders abolishing term limits. We see crackdowns on civil society. We see corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.

As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its own people. Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.

Words matter. I’m glad the president made this commitment.

By E.J. Dionne  | September 24, 2010; 1:57 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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No one denies that the annointed one makes a great speech. Did anyone noticed that during his UN Speech he blamed Wall Street for the world wide financial crisis. There he goes again blaming America. Obama still talks about negotiating with Ahmadinijad, even after the nutcase claimed the US and Israel staged 911. Iran is building a bomb and our foolish president is pursuing unilateral nuclear disarmnament. God help us. We are led by a fool.

Posted by: jkk1943 | September 24, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Dionne - As usual your liberalism shines brightly. The speech by Obama at the United Nations was an apology from the United States. He blames the US for all the ills of this world and you are his enthusiastic supporter. I can only hope that you understand the anger that the majority of people have with this administration in November. I am sure that it will not change your opinion pieces and you will still support unpopular legislation passed by a liberal administration but maybe you will understand how out of the mainstream you really are!

Posted by: srfarmer2003 | September 24, 2010 11:36 PM | Report abuse

I was wondering why Obama is so hellbent on getting Israel to stop building in Jerusalem. That is how he supports democracy. But what does he ask of the PLO or Hamas? Nothing. "I see," said the blind man as he pitched into the toilet bowl.

Posted by: sailhardy | September 25, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Yes, it would really be a horrible thing if E.J. and other Dems retreated now into realism. It will be more chastening for them if they remain in denial through Nov 2, when they will be slam-dunked into realism.

Posted by: RedderThanEver | September 25, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Dionne wrote: "Words matter. I’m glad the president made this commitment."


Yes words matter, but action speaks louder than words.

I remember a few other of obama's words that haven't amounted to much. His promise close Gitmo, his promise to create jobs and keep unemployment under 8%, his promise to control healthcare costs, and the list goes on and on!

All Obama has is a bunch of words that dont mean much in the end!

And this speech coming just before Obama invokes "state secrets" to justify their desire to kill US citizens living abroad!

WOW, Democrats are amazing! Stupid liberal Dionne!!

Posted by: sanmateo1850 | September 25, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

"The idea is a simple one -- that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings."

Unless, of course, an individual human being is suspected of terrorist associations in which case that person can be put on no-fly lists, surveilled, held indefinitely without charge or trial, tortured or even summarily executed or assassinated all in secret and by the judgment of anonymous defense or security officials in the Executive Branch.

My own idea is that the necessary, while not sufficient, precondition for freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings is faithful adherence to the rule of law. Unaccountable government power, no matter what the cause, is tyranny.

Posted by: Adam_Smith | September 26, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm still laughing that E.J. freely admitted, as a point of pride, something that we conservatives have long thought about liberals as the root cause of their stupidity: That they are disconnected from reality.

Posted by: RedderThanEver | September 26, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

to all "traditional Democrats", trade unionists & like-minded independents (who may be reading this thread),

IF you are disgusted & ANGERED (as many of us former Democrats are) with THE TERRIBLE MESS that BHO & the elitist/tone-deaf DIMocRAT "Congressional leadership" has made of our republic over the last few years, you will be warmly welcomed into your local Tea Party group.

we "Tea Partyiers" will NOT:
1. make fun of you for your race, creed, employment (or lack thereof), formal education, ethnicity, age, religious/moral/political beliefs, place that you chose to live, gender, "life-style" and/or for any other merit-less reason
2. believe you to be "unimportant", "ignorant & stupid", "a hillbilly from flyover country" & "socially beneath us", as the DIMocRAT "leaders" DO
(Harry Reid, Princess Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chuck Schumer & many others of that SELF-important sort wouldn't spit on us "regular people",if we caught fire.)
3. we will quickly "put you to work" to help us "ordinary people" kick OUT the "current crop of SELF-important, elitist,congress-critters"
to restore our Constitutional Republic to "common sense government" & to her former glory.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | September 26, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Dionne needs to take off his rose colored glasses and put on his hearing aid. Or learn to read. Obama is NOT for democracy. He wants to be world dictator. He is fast becoming dictator to the USA. We must get rid of this horrible excuse for a mam.

Posted by: annnort | September 26, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Barack Obama is all for democracy when he wins. Otherwise, he complains of unfairness. His presidency will be remembered as Daze of Whine and Whine.

Posted by: sailhardy | September 27, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Hi E J,

Obama's speech is a policy statement from the Bush Administration. I heard President Bush, on many occasions, say the same thing. Unlike Bush Obama appears weak especially when dealing with Iran. Bush may have been hated by many international leaders but he was respected by them. Obama is seen as a joke.


Posted by: josephlyons | September 28, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

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