When Did America Become So Spineless?

Sunday, October 4, 2015
By James S. Robbins in USA Today:

Ich bin ein Bejinger

Insulated communist leaders need to hear call for human rights loud and clear.

When did America become so spineless? There was a time when the world expected the United States to be a resolute voice for human rights, when American diplomacy sought to prick the conscience of dictators. There was an age when we assumed that role with pride. It gave birth to “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Tear down this wall.”

But now the first principle of American foreign policy is: never hurt anybody's feelings.

Case in point: Last Thursday Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a unanimous consent resolution that would rename the street in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” after the noted dissident and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He and his wife Liu Xia are currently languishing in a Chinese prison for the crime of promoting political freedom and justice in the communist state. Renaming the plaza would force Chinese diplomats to see Liu Xiaobo’s name on their way to work, and on every piece of mail that crossed their desks.

There is worthy precedent. In 1984, the street in front of the Soviet Embassy was renamed “Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” honoring the famous human rights activist who was in internal exile with his wife Yelena Bonner in Gorky. The measure passed Congress with strong bipartisan backing. Of course, there were naysayers. Columnist Jack Anderson called it a childish "cheap shot." But this symbolic measure did not derail U.S./Soviet relations, and may have helped Sakharov. A year later, Bonner was freed to travel to the United States for medical treatment. A year after that they were both released from Gorky. Who knows, maybe the renaming showed Moscow that the United States was serious.

But that was then. Sen. Cruz’s attempt to tweak Beijing failed when Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., raised an objection. She did not want the Senate to embarrass Chinese president Xi Jinping on his trip to the U.S. "Maybe people don't believe that diplomacy makes a difference,” she said, “but I do." By this definition, diplomacy means that no foreign dictator ever be made to feel a modicum of displeasure or be forced into even a moment of reflection on their contemptible ways.

The White House made this point more vividly. A group of demonstrators — pro-Tibet, pro-human rights, anti-communist — had gathered in Lafayette Park across from the executive mansion during Xi Jinping’s visit. But the White House bowed to Chinese requests that Xi be spared the sight or sound of protesters on his Washington visit. For fear of what? That he might stomp off in a huff?

In a similar incident last July, two Cuban pro-democracy activists were threatened at the State Department just for showing up. Dissident blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo and Rosa María Paya, daughter of the late pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Payá, attended a joint press conference by Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. They were confronted by a U.S. official who informed them if they tried to ask any questions they would be forcibly ejected. They probably felt like they were back home in totalitarian Havana.

Is President Obama’s standing in the world so weak that he fears any show of American resolve will scuttle his delicate diplomacy? It is worth remembering that Senate approval of the 1984 renaming at the Soviet embassy came weeks after President Reagan and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had a productive meeting to discuss Reagan’s ambitious proposal for a broad arms control framework. But for Reagan, progress on arms control did not come at the expense of America’s responsibility for global leadership. His diplomacy spoke from a posture of both power and principle.

“Ronald Reagan understood that standing for human rights actually strengthens our diplomatic hand,” Sen. Cruz told me. “It highlights the very principles that make our nation great.” He stressed that it is not a question of whether or not to talk to our adversaries, but “we don’t have to grant them moral parity. We don’t have to check our values at the negotiating-room door.”

Sen. Cruz intends to bring the matter back to the Senate floor this week, hopefully with better results. Because this kind of diplomacy does make a difference.