At the height of the Cold War, when Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviets and their allies and satellites did not shirk human-rights debates with the West. They had their arguments ready. When American officials denounced the lack of freedom of speech or press or religion, or the absence of free elections, they did not whimper. Their replies went something like this: “It’s important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It’s a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment.”
No one would be surprised to hear that such words were spoken by Mikhail Suslov, the long-time ideological chief of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, or by Khrushchev or Brezhnev, or by Castro or Ceaucescu, or by any other chieftain from the “socialist countries.” But that quote actually comes from Secretary of State Clinton, in an interview this month with the Wall Street Journal. It is an astonishing revival of the old Soviet line, now taken up by an American official.
Why is Mrs. Clinton repeating these old Soviet bromides? In all probability she has little idea what she is doing; she might even fire a few underlings if she found out whose old lines are being put in her mouth (one sure hopes so!). She is probably ignorant of the long effort the West undertook to undermine such positions. Back in the 1980s, when I served in the Reagan State Department, we spent a good deal of time countering such nonsense. For one thing, even taken on its own terms, the argument was ridiculous: The “socialist camp” did a wretched job of providing “social goods” such as jobs and housing and medical care. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the poor living conditions in the East became even more evident, and the Russian situation remains catastrophic to this day.
But of course we did not take their argument on its own terms. We told the Communist officials that those arguments were offensive and baseless. No country is too poor to be free, as India was proving even back then, but many are too poor to provide adequate jobs, housing, hospitals, and the like. The purpose of extending the definition of human rights beyond the essential political rights was clear: It was the basis for two theories they liked to propound solemnly. The first was that the countries in question would perhaps someday develop all the human rights, from jobs to schools to freedom of speech to free elections, but this would take a very long time as they were poor, developing countries. The second was that the really important human rights were not the freedoms the West kept talking about, but the “social rights” guaranteed (well, on paper anyway) in the Socialist Bloc. So, they would say, you have your definition and we have ours; who’s to say who is right?
To hear such arguments from beautifully dressed commissars and KGB agents was infuriating enough, but at least in those days the U.S. government ridiculed and attacked them as excuses for tyranny. Now we hear the same line from our own secretary of state.
Nor is she alone: Dictators as well have taken to reviving the old Soviet line. Just before his visit to Washington, Egypt’s President Mubarak did an interview with Charlie Rose, who raised the issue of human rights (tepidly, it must be said). Mubarak was ready for him, having apparently opened the old Soviet textbooks Egypt used to have before Sadat broke with Russia. “Look, please,” Mubarak replied. “Your concept of human rights is a merely political one. Human rights are not only political. You have social rights. You have the right to education. You have the right to health. You have the right to a job. There are many other rights. And we are doing well on these fronts. But what we are not [is] absolutely perfect, and nobody’s perfect. . . . It is not merely a political concept. It is social, it is health, and it is amalgamated as one.”
That’s as pure a rendition of the standard line as one could ever have heard from Bucharest or Budapest in the old days. The use of similar language by our top diplomat must be a shocking message to freedom fighters around the globe. It is another signal of the abandonment of the cause of human rights by the Obama administration. And it’s a new stage: Not only are human rights being ignored by the State Department and the National Security Council, but now the very basis — ideological and intellectual — of America’s support for human rights is being undermined.
In case Mrs. Clinton has fallen for the line that promoting human rights is a George Bush–Ronald Reagan right-wing conspiracy, a few words from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural may be in order. When Kennedy asserted that we were “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world,” he quickly added that we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Not a “good job,” not “shelter,” and not “health care when your wife is pregnant.” Democrats used to be for liberty too.
– Elliott Abrams served as assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Reagan administration and as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy in the George W. Bush administration.