What a values-based foreign policy would look like
November 19th, 2012
11:39 AM ET

What a values-based foreign policy would look like

By Sarah Margon, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sarah Margon is the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.

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.

More from CNN: After election, new push on Syria

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.

More from GPS: 10 foreign policy priorities for Obama

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.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    If there is one this country doesn't have, it's a values based foreign policy unless one considers greed to be of value of which I do not! What's so right about invading a country which cannot defend itself in a totally one-sided military situation? What we need to do is to adopt a laisez-faire foreign policy and stay out of everyone else's business! Unfortunately, most people are too feeble minded to see that! We can expect more needless bloodshed for some time to come!

    November 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      True enough, Quigley. If Barack Obama ever had had any moral values, he left them at the White House door as he sold out to special interests upon assuming the Presidency. It could also be because of his intense hatred of Islam, too. Like you said, we need a foreign policy based on moral principles which we sorely lact at this time!

      November 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
      • herrer

        What hatred of Islam are you talking about? Aside from the fact that I feel we should stay out of middle east conflicts, the president has told Israel before to stop spreading into the west bank and gaza. The there were those who accused him of being too rough on Israel not to mention he never really had a great relatioship with ther prime minister. Heck some have even accused him of symphazing too much.

        November 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  2. joe anon 1

    values based? from u.s.?

    would mean israel ceases to exist and u.s. politicians and the wonkers go to the boiling pots of uzbekistan for cleaning.

    November 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  3. herrer

    So tell me why is it when Israel is in trouble why is it that is always the US to the rescue? You hardly ever hear of Europe or other nations coming to the aid of Israel?

    November 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    The author's "values-based foreign policy" should no doubt have a place on Obama's agenda. To be realistic, in many countries with political turmoil, human rights issues are not the immediate worries of the population. Their primary concern is to have security and see food on the table. Then everything else comes later. It's like climbing the ladder, one rung at a time.

    November 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  5. Ojeh Dan

    President Obama needs to match words with action in respect his stand on effective national security policy strategy.The US under Obama should know that the era of cruelty as a measure of national power is gone and that American enemies arround the world is growing in leap and bound and thatp no military might can defeat well established conviction in people's minds(accross cultures,races and religion)

    November 20, 2012 at 3:10 am | Reply
    • General Sherman

      Well put, Ojeh Dan. Our brutal military tatics such as the use of those godless drones and Apache helicoptors are only causing people around the world to become ever more sympathetic to the Muslims except that those morons in Washington won't realize it!

      November 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    There comes a time in the lifetime of any country where they can no longer feed on the inheritance of their forefathers may it be gold or CREDIT. Sometimes in the life of any man, he has to grow up and make a living.

    November 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  7. USN Ret.

    I wish some of you would look and read what you’re saying. Freedom of speech is what you’re expressing and I for one will and have protected that right with 20 years of military service. But if any of you think the Taliban would let you talk about their leadership in such away then you WOULD BE VERY DEAD. The U.S.A. may not do things to your or my liking but the loss of you freedom to someone’s new "ism" is not one of them. So what do we do hear. Force you to be a Democrat of Republican by gun point like the Taliban would force Islam on you. THINK BEFORE YOU SPEEK.

    November 27, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
  8. USN Ret.

    Sorry for some of the typos!!

    November 27, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
  9. USN Ret.

    @ General Sherman.. I suppose its best to allow young men and women into harms way. Oh yes the Apache pilot and gunner on average is under 23 years old when qualified. They are there doing a job that unless YOU have walked in THEIR shoes. Killing is the last thing these young men and women want to do.

    November 27, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  10. Marvin

    and what a values-based foreign policy would look like if america supported the cause of Palestinians and refrained from funding an occupation from americans tax money? I am sure it is an oversight by Sarah Margon! And also supporting arab dictators who have been crushing humanity for years is also a justified pragmatism, right? The american machine seeking exploitation of national and international resources for survival will not ever produce a value-based foreign policy!

    November 29, 2012 at 12:58 am | Reply

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