On the last day of her trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke briefly of the place of human rights in American policy toward China. "Our pressing on those issues" -- issues she didn't identify any more fully -- "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."
Cries of dismay quickly came forth from Amnesty International USA, New Students for a Free Tibet and Freedom House. Has the United States given up on championing human rights and democracy altogether?
Now it can be said in defense of Clinton's remarks that previous administrations of both parties, from the time of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, have given human rights at best a subordinate place in their dealings with China. And that our past calls for China to observe human rights have been met for the most part with stony silence and acts of defiance. And that the stricken American economy at this point is in need of continued Chinese purchases of Treasury bonds.
Still, for anyone with knowledge of American foreign policy over the last four decades, Clinton's remarks were jarring. It is one thing not to press a tyranny very hard on human rights; it is another thing to come out and say you're not going to raise the issue at all. It is a kind of unilateral moral disarmament. One arrow in the quiver of American foreign policy has been our pressing -- sometimes sotto voce (as in the Helsinki Accords), sometimes in opera buffa ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!") -- tyrannical regimes to honor human rights. Hillary Clinton has put that arrow over her knee, broken it in two and thrown it away.
She is not the only one. On this as on other matters, she is following the lead of the man who beat her for the Democratic nomination. In his inaugural speech, Barack Obama made only the most passing mention of human rights. In his Feb. 26 speech to Congress, he devoted just 7 percent of his words to foreign and defense policy, and made just one mention of freedom.
He is reportedly poised to name as head of the National Intelligence Council a man who has endorsed China's 1989 suppression of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square. He has noted with cold indifference the success of the provincial elections in Iraq.