The candidates may disagree on some human rights issues, but the next president will face challenges that transcend partisan lines.
How might tomorrow's presidential election affect U.S. policy on human rights? The common wisdom is that unlike their sharp divergences on domestic policy, there isn't much difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy. That is only partly true.
Both Obama and Romney are outraged by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his people, but neither has detailed how to ratchet up the pressure to stop it. Romney has largely endorsed Obama's exit strategy for Afghanistan, emphasizing perhaps a more gradual withdrawal but adding no details to Obama's disturbingly vague pronouncements about protecting women's rights after the troops depart. On China and Russia, Romney's rhetoric has been tougher than Obama's. But that's mainly the case when Romney is addressing a perceived strategic threat (Russia) and economic threat (China), with no visible difference between the candidates on how to address these countries' worsening crackdowns on domestic critics.
With respect to Obama's more muscular policies, Romney largely supported the military effort to stop the Qaddafi government's killings in Libya as well as Obama's decision to send military advisors to Africa to help capture the leaders of the murderous Lord's Resistance Army. Depending perhaps on which of his foreign-policy advisors prevail, Romney will likely pursue Obama's pragmatic approach to the International Criminal Court, working with the institution to address mass atrocities (at least by non-allies) while seeking neither to join the court nor to cripple it as George W. Bush's administration did in its early years.
By the same token, both candidates seem to share the same blind spots for human rights advocacy, largely exempting allies such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. On the biggest blind spot -- Israel -- Obama was initially willing to press Israeli leaders on the expansion of settlements. Recently, however, the candidates have been competing to embrace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard line toward Palestinians in a bid to capture the diminishing slice of American Jewry whose vote is determined by such pandering.
Obama, meanwhile, has used drones to kill terrorist suspects without articulating legal criteria that are focused enough to ensure compliance with international law. That allows unscrupulous leaders to interpret his precedent as license to designate their own political opponents as terrorists (say, Russia's Chechens or China's Uighurs) and order their targeted killing wherever they might be found. Romney has endorsed the drone program without qualification in this regard.
That said, differences between the candidates are apparent in several areas, including counterterrorism. To his credit, Obama has ended torture such as waterboarding that the Bush administration authorized under the guise of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Today, all U.S. interrogators must comply with the Army's Field Manual -- an important step toward curbing abuse. Romney, by contrast -- while foreswearing "torture" as Bush did -- has said he would allow some unspecified "enhanced" interrogation techniques that go beyond those prohibited by the field manual, and he does not consider waterboarding torture. That is particularly worrying because, under his policy of "looking forward," not back, Obama has refused to authorize the investigation and prosecution of the Bush torturers. As a result, political leaders in the United States can see torture as a "policy option" rather than the crime it clearly is.
While failing to keep his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, Obama has at least drawn the line at not adding new detainees, confining the detention center to a Bush legacy issue. New terrorism suspects have been tried in regular federal court. Obama briefly attempted to try some Guantánamo detainees in federal court, but ultimately capitulated to bipartisan pressure to use military commissions instead, even though, operating under new and sometimes unfair rules, military commissions have proven grindingly slow and ineffective. Romney has spoken approvingly about Guantánamo -- at one point in 2007 saying, "We ought to double Guantánamo."
Another area of possible disagreement is in policy toward the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Bush administration boycotted the council because of its fixation on Israel and its domination by abusive governments. The Obama administration has taken a different and highly effective approach, joining the council and putting in the diplomatic time and effort to build coalitions with democratic governments outside the West. Historically, many of these democracies sided with neighboring autocrats out of a misguided sense of regional solidarity. Today, they are the cornerstone of a human rights majority that has persuaded the council to take strong action against a range of repressive countries, including Eritrea, Iran, and Syria. Romney, however, seems to deride such coalition-building as "leading from behind," and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, one of Romney's foreign policy advisors, was an architect of Bush's boycott of the council.
On the Arab Spring, both Obama and Romney stress the importance of new governments respecting minority rights, religious freedom, and the rights of women, but they offer few specifics on how to encourage that. Yet differences emerge in their attitudes toward Islamists who win electoral majorities. Obama has made clear that he respects that choice while expecting the new governments to uphold the rights of all. Romney, in the foreign-policy debate, suggested that Egypt's election of a Muslim Brotherhood president was a development on par with the death of 30,000 people in Syria and the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
On sexual rights, the candidates' domestic views suggest differences in their foreign policies. Obama, having embraced same-sex marriage and ended "don't ask, don't tell," has been a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights overseas. Romney hasn't. Obama ended the "gag rule" prohibiting U.S. funding to overseas organizations that use their own funds to inform women of abortion options. Romney, who supports reversal of Roe v. Wade at home, says he would reinstate the gag rule abroad.
These differences aside, whoever wins tomorrow's election will face a host of challenges that are likely to transcend partisan lines. Is there a way to circumvent Russia's and China's veto to step up pressure to end the killing in Syria? What is the best way to balance the need for continuing relations with Moscow and Beijing against the importance of speaking out about their worsening repression? How can rights be protected in post-2014 Afghanistan or in the Islamist-led countries of the Middle East and North Africa? Given the key role of the Internet in combating autocratic rule, will the next president back legislation prohibiting U.S. Internet companies from cooperating with censorship efforts? Only when faced with the enormity of these and other critical tasks will the next president reveal his true human rights colors.