ARE HUMAN RIGHTS still a Democratic priority?
To Democrats of a certain age, such a question might seem incomprehensible. After all, it was a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, whose inaugural address proclaimed "to friend and foe alike" that Americans would resist "the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed." It was another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who made support for human rights an explicit foreign-policy concern, declaring at his inauguration: "Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere." It was Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik -- Democrats both -- whose landmark Jackson-Vanik amendment helped win freedom for tens of thousands of Soviet dissidents and refuseniks.
But somewhere along the way, Democratic priorities seem to have changed.
For example: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have used her recent trip to China to vigorously defend human rights -- to make it clear to those who rule the world's largest dictatorship that the new administration in Washington cares about the liberty and dignity of China's people. Instead, she more or less announced in advance that talking to Beijing about human rights was pointless, since "we pretty much know what they're going to say." Besides, she told reporters, human rights must not "interfere" with more important issues, such as the global economic crisis or climate change.
China got the message. As Clinton arrived in Beijing, dozens of pro-democracy dissidents were placed under virtual house arrest. True to her word, the secretary of state made no fuss about the regime's brutality.
Not long thereafter, the White House picked Charles Freeman, a longtime Beijing sycophant, to head the National Intelligence Council. In 1989, Freeman had defended the Tiananmen Square massacre, publicly regretting only that Chinese authorities didn't crack down even sooner. (He later withdrew his name from consideration for the intelligence post.)
To be sure, the US-Chinese relationship has never turned solely on human rights. But Democrats have certainly traveled quite a distance since the days when Bill Clinton was blasting the first President Bush for "coddling aging rulers with undisguised contempt for democracy and human rights."
Closer to home, President Obama last week relaxed US policy toward Cuba, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to relatives living there. The president's order was titled "Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba," but in fact it said nothing at all about democracy and human rights in Cuba. Nowhere did it mention the Communist tyranny of the last 50 years -- there was nothing about the denial of free speech; the abuse and murder of political dissidents; the persecution of journalists, librarians, and human-rights activists; the relentless surveillance and secret police; the regime's stranglehold on property and employment.
This time, at least, Hillary Clinton didn't give human rights the brush-off. "We would like to see Cuba open up its society, release political prisoners, open up to outside opinions and media," she said on Thursday.
By contrast, when a delegation of congressional Democrats returned from a trip to Cuba a few days earlier, it was to gush about how "very engaging" Fidel and Raul Castro are, and to insist that improvement in human rights not be made a condition of better relations with Washington.
Thus at a press conference on April 7, Illinois Representative Bobby Rush extolled Raul Castro -- a man with the blood of hundreds on his hands -- for his "sense of humor" and the way he "laughed at himself" and how "down-to-earth" and "kind" he was. Why, said Rush, being with Castro was "almost like visiting an old friend." When a reporter asked about Cuba's human rights record, Rush snapped that he was engaging in a "double standard" and called it "good business sense" not to let human rights get in the way of increased trade.
Another member of the delegation, Cleveland congresswoman Marcia Fudge, went even further, resolutely defending the Castro brothers' right to "run a nation the way they believe is best." After all, she said, "there is no one way that people should live."
But Fudge was wrong -- profoundly wrong. All people should live in freedom. No one has the right to "run a nation" like a prison camp. Every human being is entitled to be treated with dignity and equal justice. Those are core American truths -- truths most Democrats once understood in their bones. Do they still?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)