"Our concern is that the Obama administration is perceived to be softening on human rights."
If that comment came from a human rights lobbyist, you might not pay too much mind. But I heard it from Anwar Ibrahim, a Malaysian leader who is one of the world's foremost spokesmen for Islamic democracy -- and who is himself under threat from authorities at home. If Anwar says that people throughout Asia and the Middle East are wondering about President Obama's commitment to human rights, the administration ought to pay attention.
Obama has committed himself to the cause of democracy in every major foreign policy address of his young presidency. He has met with freedom fighters, in Moscow and elsewhere. In announcing Friday that he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he saluted, obliquely but unmistakably, the democracy marchers of Tehran and a former Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, for her courageous advocacy of democracy, languishes under house arrest in Burma.
But Obama's choice last week not to meet with the Dalai Lama, an advocate of freedom, broke with bipartisan tradition and -- following several other seemingly small decisions and ambiguous administration statements -- reverberated across the globe. In an odd way, it showed the flip side of the willingness that he expressed, especially during the campaign, to meet with the enemies of freedom.
Both positions in their way reflect the president's self-confidence, his impatience with show and pretense, and his disdain for aspects of his predecessor's policy. Both have a compelling logic. But both also carry dangers.
When Obama suggested early on that he would meet with an Ahmadinejad or a Kim Jong Il, he was rebuking what he saw as George W. Bush's diplomatic arrogance. But he was also rejecting protocol and hang-ups about status: If America is so powerful, why should we be afraid to meet with anyone? And why would anyone worry that meeting with Hugo Chávez, or accepting an anti-American book from him, could influence Obama for the worse?
But Obama discovered quickly that, whatever it meant to him, allowing Chávez to shake his hands and press him with gifts had significance throughout a continent. A meeting with Obama would be a coup for Kim, not to be given away for nothing. A debate, as proposed by Ahmadinejad, would benefit Iran's regime but not America. And so the administration, like that of Bush's second term, is trying to steer the bad guys of the world into discussions with the United States and its allies -- the six-party talks on Korea, the P-5 plus 1 on Iran -- and away from one-on-one diplomacy.
Some of the impulses behind the non-invitation to the Dalai Lama are similar. It's not that they've given up on the Tibetan cause, administration officials say, but that they want achievements, not gestures. Bush could feel good about himself for inviting dissidents into the White House, but what did he accomplish? By postponing a meeting that administration officials fear would inflame China's leaders, Obama will get a chance to raise the issue with them in quiet conversation. If he gets nowhere, officials say, there will be ample time to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House.
That again may reflect Obama's self-confidence: He knows how he feels about human rights, so why should he have to thump his chest and prove it to the world? Why not try to get something done?
Yet as with Chávez's small public relations coup, such calculations on the Dalai Lama may underestimate the impact in the world. China unabashedly browbeats other governments that dare meet with the Dalai Lama or other dissidents. When Denmark once supported a U.N. resolution criticizing China's human rights record, a Chinese government spokesman likened Denmark to "the bird that pokes out its head" and said the resolution "will, I think, in the end become a rock that smashes on the Danish government's head."
Once they see Washington deferring, fewer governments elsewhere may dare poke up their heads. On such matters, many nations still look to America to lead.
Throughout the autocratic world, there are people fighting back -- priests and poets, honest reporters, incorruptible lawyers. Most of us will never know their names. But they watch what happens in the White House. When a dissident is turned away, they take note. When a dissident is welcomed, they take heart. To them, no gesture is empty.
"Of course, your government has to decide what is the best strategy," Anwar said during a visit to The Post last week. "But the perception also is important. Because once you give a perception that you are softening on human rights, then you are strengthening the hands of autocrats to punish dissidents throughout the world."