Hot Topic: The Price Of Diplomacy

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
In Saudi Arabia, where President Obama arrived Wednesday morning, the legal system is based on Sharia, or Islamic law. It is illegal to spend time alone with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not related, to drink, to smoke, or to engage in other behaviors deemed immoral. There is little freedom of expression and no freedom of religion. The media is state-controlled. The State Department has reported that religious police "intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens and foreigners" and has also reported on the "denial of public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system." Men have extensive power over women, who cannot drive vehicles or work without permission. Abuse of migrant workers is common, and torture is "widespread and committed with impunity," according to Amnesty International. One possible punishment for theft is amputation. Homosexuality, blasphemy, "witchcraft" and some other non-violent offenses are punishable by death.

In Egypt, where the president speaks Thursday, Emergency Law was recently extended. According to Human Rights Watch, that means authorities can "detain persons arbitrarily and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards." Freedom of expression, religion and assembly are limited. Last year, according to the State Department, "security forces used unwarranted lethal force and tortured and abused prisoners and detainees," largely without consequences. During President Hosni Mubarak's 28 years in power, dissidents have been harassed and imprisoned. Student political groups are prohibited at the university where Mr. Obama plans to speak, and deans are chosen by the administration; one student blogger was recently jailed for two months for "public agitation."

When he arrived in Saudi Arabia, President Obama did not publicly discuss human rights issues. Of the country's head of state, King Abdullah, he said this: "I've been struck by his wisdom and his graciousness." The White House said following a private meeting that the two men discussed "a wide range of issues," including energy and Middle East peace, but human rights abuses was not listed among them.

The president told the BBC before the trip that while there are "obviously" human rights issues in some Middle East countries, it is not the U.S.'s role to lecture.

"The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture," he said, adding that America should focus on being a "role model."

"We're not going to get countries to embrace our values simply by lecturing or through military means," Mr. Obama told National Public Radio before the trip. As for Mubarak, the president has called him a "stalwart ally."

The president's decision to not make human rights abuses a central theme of his visit has prompted criticism from civil rights advocates, who talk, in the words of Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson, of "the growing perception here that human rights are a second-rank concern."

Mr. Obama's tone on human rights appears to be grounded in a desire not to jeopardize his larger goals. While Mr. Obama will likely touch on the issue in his Cairo speech – his speechwriter promises "a forthright discussion" of "democracy, human rights, and related issues to that" – he does not want to antagonize his hosts and/or complicate efforts to reboot the troubled relationship between the United States and Muslim world.

Particularly pointed criticism from the United States of practices by Middle Eastern governments would likely complicate his public relations effort to win 1.6 billion Muslim hearts and minds, particularly in the wake of well-publicized revelations about torture and the killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military.

Human rights groups see in the president's approach not pragmatism but unacceptable moral compromise, however. "Ignoring human rights abuses by U.S. allies won't help bring about the change so many Saudis and Egyptians long for," said Whitson. "It will instead reinforce the perception that Washington's interests are tied to autocratic leaders, but not to the Arab people."

Ayman Nour, an Egyptian political opponent of Mubarrak imprisoned on forgery charges he calls false, told the Telegraph that he is "astonished with the approach that ignores civil society and political parties."

"We see there is a retreat from campaign promises and that there is an attempt to separate American principles and American interests," he said.

The comment goes to the heart of the challenge facing the president. Pushing moral governance is never simple in a world in which alliances are sometimes built in part on a willingness to look the other way; the United States has a long history of supporting undemocratic and/or oppressive governments that, despite their flaws, are thought to help U.S. interests. Egypt presently receives billions in U.S. aid.

Mr. Obama has cast himself as the face of a more moral American government, one that does the right thing (refusing to torture, for example) despite pressure to do otherwise. But the right thing can be elusive. Saudi Arabia is emerging as a key ally in the effort for Middle East peace, for example. Does that mean it's OK to look past human rights abuses as part of an effort to build potentially-crucial relationships? How, in other words, does one gauge the course of action that ultimately serves greater good?

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Obama's Trip: Complete Coverage

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