In Iran, hundreds of thousands of citizens are bravely defying state laws barring protest, with reports emerging of students and demonstrators being beaten and even shot. President Barack Obama has muted his response so far, taking note of the violence, while taking pains not to feed historical Iranian perceptions of U.S. meddling. Some have criticized him for not taking a stronger stand, echoing widespread charges that Obama downplays human rights more generally in his foreign policy approach.
The critics are right: Obama has prioritized stability and the shoring up of U.S. power over the vocal advocacy of human rights. But they are wrong in seeing this strategy as callous or disinterested. Paradoxically, the more Obama de-emphasizes human rights, the more his foreign policy will be likely to advance them.
Complaints that Obama neglects human rights date back to the presidential campaign, when he was accused of not taking a strong enough stand on Russian aggression against Georgia. Since taking office only five months ago, he and his administration have been called ruthless by a growing number of critics from across the political spectrum. Peter Daou of Huffington Post called Obama "disappointingly weak on human rights and specifically women's rights." The president "builds an idealist facade on a realist structure," according to David Brooks. Michael Ledeen complains that Obama's speech in Cairo didn't contain "a single word calling for freedom for the Iranian people."