Friday, February 29, 2008

Just Wants to Share Your Light

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein decry the hypocrisy inherent in President Bush's recent criticism of Obama's stated willingness to meet with leaders from Cuba (and other places shunned by the Bush administration). Although Bush argues that the president of the United States should not meet with Cuba's leader because of the latter country's atrocious human rights record, Bush himself regularly meets with despots, dictators and tyrants. Here is a humorous collection of photos depicting Bush in just such scenarios.

Matt rightly points out that this cold-shoulder policy fails to accomplish much in terms of desired results:

Is it a good thing that the people of China and Russia and Saudi Arabia are, like the people of Cuba and Syria and Iran, ruled by dictators? Of course not. And if the lessons of history indicated that some kind of "no meetings ever" policy caused those regimes to melt and transform into wholesome democracies, then we wouldn't be having this debate.

But things don't work like that, and in the world as it is it's hardly practical to eschew all meetings with everyone whose political system you don't approve on. The question is, thus, whether or not this posture of creating a mostly arbitrary class of "bad guy" that we're going to take down with our awesome powers of snubbing accomplishes anything meaningful. Obama's contention is "no." Bush's contention is "yes" but he has absolutely nothing to show for it.

So if there is little to be gained in terms of bringing those regimes to an end, what's the purpose? Interestingly, Bush justifies his no-meetings policy by pointing to the symbolic value of such tete-a-tetes:

"What's lost ... by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs?” he said. “What's lost is, it'll send the wrong message. It'll send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It'll give great status to those ... who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.

“The idea of embracing a leader who's done this, without any attempt on his part to ... release prisoners and free their society, would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal.”

Warming to the subject, Bush continued: “Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, 'Look at me. I'm now recognized by the president of the United States.[emphasis added]

Now personally I don't ascribe to that view regarding the impact of meetings, negotiations and photo ops, but consider the ramifications for someone like Bush who, ostensibly, does.

By his own criteria, he repeatedly "sends the wrong message" to populations ruled by despotic regimes that happen to be on our "friend" list and thus worthy of a face-to-face. According to Bush, his meetings with leaders from places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Uzbekistan, Russia, etc. are "counterproductive" to the cause of human rights. He has on numerous occasions lent the status of the office to brutal dictators that flagrantly violate human rights - allowing such regimes to gain in stature by the association.

I mean, he sat down with Islam Karimov: a leader with a zeal for torturing prisoners and a particular yen for boiling his enemies alive. Or should we assume that Bush was thinking to himself as the flashbulbs went off, "It's a good thing I'm lending the status of the office to this Karimov guy, giving him the recognition he deserves. This meeting will send the right message to the people of Uzbekistan."

At least those not stuffed in a cauldron.

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