President Obama’s May 19 speech contained much that appeals to the human rights community. His soaring promises of a new chapter in American diplomacy, of making support for reforms that respond to people’s aspirations a top priority; his admissions that U.S. failure to speak to the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people feeds a perception that the U.S. is pursuing its narrow interests at their expense, and that our friends often don’t respond appropriately to their populations’ demands for change—all music to our ears. All arguments human rights proponents have been making for years.
Against this soaring rhetoric, President Obama’s narrow geographic focus on the Middle East was jarring. I realize his speech was an effort to reach out to the people in the Middle East and North Africa. But this is by no means the only region in which people suffer from the problems that have driven the Arab Spring, and about which President Obama spoke so eloquently: problems such as repression, widespread violation of basic human rights, lack of space for economic and political participation by ordinary citizens, corruption, and torture.
Let’s take Central Asia, for example. Home to two states—Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—that are among the most authoritarian in the world, and Kazakhstan, with its one-party parliament and one-man rule. Yet, particularly as the U.S. relationship with Pakistan deteriorates, U.S. policy towards the region is not driven by a long-term, values-based approach, but by a short-term, geostrategic focus on Afghanistan.
Currently, 60 percent of the supplies that travel overland to U.S. forces in Afghanistan get there via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which funnels supplies through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. During recent Congressional testimony, senior DOD officials indicated that the goal is to increase that figure to 75 percent. And that would have to go up again if it becomes impossible to ship via Pakistan.
So here’s another region where the U.S. faces the dilemma President Obama spoke of in his speech: What to do “when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision”? To date, U.S. policy has been clear: Afghanistan comes first. In fact, Afghanistan comes second and third, too. If the repressive policies of the region’s autocratic leaders create security problems down the road in the shape of popular uprisings or increased support for extremism, or if U.S. cooperation with these despots ruins public attitudes about the U.S., it’s too bad, but it’s an acceptable cost of the war.
Will this change in light of the president’s speech? Are we really beginning a new chapter in American diplomacy or are we witnessing a bifurcation of American policy: the adoption of a values-based approach where the facts on the ground have forced us in that direction, while maintaining a traditional, short-term, interest-based approach everywhere else?