Ken Roth at Human Rights Watch:
President Obama has disappointed many by failing to make human rights a priority. True, at times he has stood up for people’s rights where there are few strategic interests at play—in such places as Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But his readiness to compromise in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Yemen leaves the impression that he is not committed to the human rights ideal.
In Fred Kaplan’s view, that makes Obama a realist. But he arrives at that conclusion only by contrasting Obama’s policies with a caricature of idealism. If idealism means the string of Bush-era policies that Kaplan lists—“triumphalism,” “missionary zeal,” “regime-changing wars,” never “negotiating with dreadful rulers”—I would abandon it too. But this is not the 19th century, and foreign policy no longer concerns only relations among sovereigns. After all, idealism was hardly needed when you could buy off an adversary by cutting a deal (or marrying your daughter to its monarch). The world has changed. Or more to the point, our understanding of it has. It can no longer credibly be called “realistic” to pretend that people have no agency beyond the machinations of their rulers, or that we can afford to be indifferent to whether those rulers are autocrats or democrats.
People do matter. As we’ve learned from Ukraine over the past week or the Arab Spring over the past three years or even Russia and China as they meet public demands with a combination of repression and responsiveness, even autocratic governments need to maintain a degree of popular consent to their rule.