Second terms are when presidents start to think about their legacy. And with a first term that earned President Barack Obama strong national security bona fides, he has the opportunity to pursue a robust foreign policy that more closely aligns U.S. values and interests. Historically, many presidents have supported such an agenda, but few have been able to follow through for fear of looking weak. Freed from the political constraints of his inaugural four years, and with two-thirds of Americans, according to polls, confident in his ability to handle major national security challenges, Obama can now stop paying lip service to this ideal.
The foundation for such an approach already exists. In 2011, Obama asserted that a “strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of [core national security interests] will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.”
With the potential for global unrest continuing – and possibly emerging in new places – the United States can no longer embrace a foreign policy in which human rights concerns are raised selectively, or separately. This need is particularly evident when it comes to how Obama will address U.S. policy in countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, where a rule of law framework for aerial drones used in targeted killings remains poorly defined. Or for Guantanamo, where the U.S. needs to resolve the cases of those detained that is aligned with international human rights law.
Here are some examples of how this type of policy could work:
Consider Syria, where the slaughter of civilians continues and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled into neighboring countries. With the election behind us, the administration needs to consider a range of comprehensive policy options that prioritize the protection of civilians in Syria. There is no time to waste. At the same time, the administration should press the recently reconstituted opposition, the National Coalition, to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, to pursue accountability for serious crimes, and to cooperate fully with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry and related investigations. While not as egregious in scale or scope as the abuses commit by Bashar al-Assad’s government, war crimes by the opposition, including summary executions and torture, have been well documented.
At the same time, political transitions in other Middle East countries, such as Libya and Egypt – require ongoing, high-level engagement. Enduring support – whether for security and justice sector reform or technical advice to ensure the rights of women and minorities – should remain atop the agenda. And these principles should apply as much to Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed, as they do to Tunisia, where the United States has minimal military ties.
United States policy toward Iran prioritizes proliferation and terrorism threats. But a failure to broaden the strategy ignores Tehran’s repressive and abusive behavior toward its own people and detracts from the potential for sustained reform. Building upon recent executive orders, including groundbreaking ones that focus on grave human rights abuses, the administration should closely work multilaterally and take concrete steps to indicate to the Iranian public that the international community, and the U.S. in particular, stands with them.
With the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan on the horizon, focusing now on sustaining progress for women as well as critical accountability and justice concerns is essential for that country’s future. A thoughtful strategy for the post-withdrawal period needs to include a plan to protect women’s rights, a concerted effort to ensure fair elections, and tangible measures for ending abuse of civilians stemming from torture, unaccountable security forces , a dysfunctional justice system, and widespread corruption.
Then there’s Russia. In his first term, Obama sought to “reset” the relationship around shared national security concerns. But as the crackdown on Russian civil society worsens, the status quo policy needs to change. The Obama administration should directly confront President Putin and top officials to shift Russia’s increasingly hostile and abusive climate for civic activism. The U.S. should place targeted sanctions on officials implicated in the killing or torture of whistleblowers.
The United States has also shown a marked absence of support for human rights and the rule of law in Africa, even though the administration has frequently said it is a priority. In recent weeks, the United States has undermined its own commitments by remaining silent while Rwanda violates a U.N. arms embargo and provides military support to an abusive armed group, M23, led by a war crimes suspect in eastern Congo. And the administration continues to pump huge amounts of foreign aid and counterterrorism support into Ethiopia, while remaining quiet about the government’s crackdown on the opposition and basic free expression rights.
Rousing speeches that embraced human rights as part of a broader foreign policy were par for the course during Obama’s first term. In practice, however, human rights were often shunted to the side. As the second term approaches, the unfinished business of the Arab Spring teaches an important lesson about why the U.S. should not neglect human rights in favor of security concerns.
Going forward, a foreign policy that integrates human rights every step of the way would not only be visionary and inspirational – it would also be pragmatic and realistic.