Obama, Dictators and Democrats

Obama, Dictators and Democrats

By Daniel Henninger - October 1, 2009

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama spoke directly to the world's rogue nations. "[W]e will extend a hand," he said, "if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Question: How many rogue nations can you hold in one hand? Let's try to count.

Iran remains rogue No. 1. The world is riveted by the expanding Iranian nuclear threat, and one might expect a mess of this magnitude would occupy most of the diplomatic energies of any presidency. But this one has time for more.

The Monday after last Friday's bombshell that Iran has a hidden nuclear site, the State Department announced the start of a "direct dialogue" with Burma's hopeless junta. The administration has dispatched a special envoy to Sudan and its genocidal leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad got his own Obama envoy, plus a visit from John Kerry.

At the Summit of the Americas, Mr. Obama himself did meet and greets for "dialogue" with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales, and reached out to Cuba's Raul Castro. Mr. Obama then dropped in on Russia's leaders for a "reset."

There is something slightly weird about all this activity. If the Obama team wanted to make a really significant break from past Bush policy, it would say it was not going to just talk with the world's worst strongmen but would give equal, public status to their democratic opposition groups. Instead, the baddest actors in the world get face time with Barack Obama, but their struggling opposition gets invisibility.

Iran's extraordinary and brave popular opposition, which broke out again this week at two universities, seems to have earned these pro-democracy Iranians nothing in the calculations of U.S. policy.

With Iran, one could argue that stopping the mullahs' nuclear program trumps the aspirations of its population. What about poor, harmless Guinea?

In July, Mr. Obama made a historic journey to Africa, giving a widely praised speech in Ghana in support of self-help and self-determination. In August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grandly visited seven African nations with a similar message. Three days ago in Guinea, government troops fired on a pro-democracy rally estimated at 50,000 in the capital of Conakry, killing more than 150 people. The State Department got out a written statement of condemnation. Why is it not possible for President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton, having encouraged these aspirations, to speak publicly in their defense, rather than let democratic movements rise, fall and die?

In trying to plumb why the U.S. won't promote or protect its own best idea, one starts with Mr. Obama's remarks at the "reset" visit in Moscow: "America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country."

Setting aside that no one is talking about the U.S. literally "imposing" a government in this day and age, what is one to make of a left-of-center American political leader taking such a diffident stance toward democratic movements? The people who live under the sway of the top dog in all the nations that have earned high-level Obama envoys are the world's poor, and one would expect the social-justice left to support them. That may no longer be true on the American or European left.

Transforming dictatorships into nations with reasonably competitive democracies increases the odds that their people in time will find a competent leader, such as Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, who will introduce productive economic policies. That makes it more likely these peoples will join the global trading system, raising their incomes.

For the American left, now fused to financial support from domestic labor unions, the world's dispossessed represent a threat-less costly labor selling goods into the high-cost world.

Active help for democratic oppositions in Venezuela, Syria, Egypt, Iran or even Guinea hardly serves this interest. Today, social justice stops at the water's edge. Even as Mr. Obama extends his hand to a Chávez, Morales or Castro, he makes no effort to finish free-trade agreements with certifiably democratic Colombia and Panama.

The one thing the Obama tack of talking to dictators and slow-walking free trade assures is that many of these populations may be run indefinitely by economically incompetent psychopaths who pose no threat to the interests of American labor and their Democratic dependents. This anti-democratic protectionism of course has fans on the xenophobic right in the U.S., too.

This is a risky business. What if the new authoritarian, make-believe democratic model gains? Our dictator chat partners are getting brazen about staging and then rigging elections. Iran's mullahs proved there will be no sustained push-back from the U.S. or Western Europe to a fraudulent election. Instead the great powers' energies go into pounding tiny Honduras, which tried to save itself from the Chávez- and Castro-admiring Manuel Zelaya.

What if the world's real democrats, after enough bullets and dungeon time, lose belief in the American democracy's support for them on this central idea? They may come to regard their betters in the U.S. and Europe as inhabiting a world less animated by democratic belief than democratic decadence.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
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