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US is great pretender when defending human rights

By Alex Welch
On January 31, 2011

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you probably know that President Hu Jintao of China visited the United States last week and met with President Barack Obama. The issues ranged from the economy to North Korea, but one of the highlights of this summit was the issue of human rights in the People's Republic. Obama pressed Jintao on the Chinese government's abysmal human rights record, which has deteriorated significantly of late.

Obama's hard-line approach to human rights is one that has transcended all presidential administrations, regardless of party ideology. The combination of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties into the single category of liberal thought is a staple of American values. In reality, the U.S. government's stance on fundamental rights on the world stage historically lacks sincerity and is rank with hypocrisy.

We are all aware that international relations is governed, at least in part, by the notion of realpolitik, the 19th-century political philosophy that places states' self-interest above ideology. This is difficult to dispute, and not necessarily the wrong approach to foreign policy. But since its inception, the United States has tried to claim the high road of preserving human rights, even while lending aid to regimes that consider violoations of these rights a non-issue.

American foreign policy during the Cold War illustrates this hypocrisy and sheds some light as to where the U.S. stands on human rights in the 21st century. In 1951, Mohammed Mosaddegh was elected democratically as Prime Minister of Iran. During his tenure, he supported the nationalization of the oil industry in the country, essentially severing diplomatic ties with Great Britain, which had long exploited Iran for its oil reserves. Wrongly fearing that Mosaddegh was moving towards communism, Britain implored the United States to intervene.

Backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, a military coup deposed Mosaddegh in 1953, eventually installing the Shah in Tehran. As pro-Western and anti-Soviet, the Shah fit in well with America's foreign policy objectives. In time, however, he proved to be as brutal and oppressive as the Soviets he was trying to denounce. He was supported by the United States (who had full knowledge of the Shah's actions regarding internal affairs) until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Shah from power, replacing a suppressive pro-Western regime with a suppressive anti-Western regime.

In the 1980s, Reagan acted as unscrupulously as previous administrations when he chose to support Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Iran, overlooking Saddam's use of chemical weapons against not only Iranians, but also dispossessed Iraqi Kurds. His administration also backed the "democratic resistance" (Reagan's words) of the contras in Nicaragua, who often employed methods strikingly similar to those of the Viet Cong, which included, but were not limited to, executing civilians, raping women and burning private property.

Strategic interests must have a significant role in our foreign policy. This is the real world, and it would be difficult to tell Americans that oil prices will skyrocket because the U.S. has severed ties with Saudi Arabia in protest of its human rights abuses, but at the same time the 21st century calls for a new type of realpolitik that no longer strictly puts self-interest over human rights. Obama, it seems, has not fully come to this conclusion.

In 2009, the Obama administration concluded a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, without doubt a key strategic ally in the region. He has failed to strongly criticize the ever useful King Abdullah over the Royal Family's dreadful abuses of its own people. As China is growing more prominent on the world stage, it seems arbitrary for the Obama administration to criticize Jintao's stance on rights but to leave the Saudi issue unresolved.

On the day the Saudi monarchy collapses, the United States may find itself powerless to defeat any anti-American sentiment that may foster as a result. How could it? After years of political and monetary support for a corrupt and pernicious regime, should any of us be surprised if Saudis feel a strong resentment towards the United States? This is not an apology for the vile and disgusting claims of radical Islamists against the West, but a call for future administrations to realize that pressing these regimes on their positions on human rights will not only aid American interests in the long term, but also cultivate a new appreciation for fundamental rights of humankind.


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