Human Rights, International Affairs and a Reply to Thor Halvorssen

President Jimmy Carter made international human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. As a result, the United States distanced itself from autocratic regimes. The problem with this morally satisfying stance is that liberty isn’t autocracy’s sole enemy. Pres. Carter soon discovered this firsthand in Iran and Nicaragua, two nations that exchanged their autocrats (the Shah and President Somoza) for Islamic theocrats and Marxist totalitarians, respectively. To Carter’s chagrin, his human rights push had no impact behind the Iron Curtain, where communist-ruled nations were immune to his efforts.

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America’s foreign policy motivations tend to swing between Nixon/Kissinger realpolitik, an amoral adherence to power politics, and a moralist foreign policy. Moralist foreign policy itself has been driven by different motivations over the years: manifest destiny, the Western obligation to civilize that led to American involvement in the Philippines, the Wilsonian progressive impulse (League of Nations), up to the recent presidency of George W. Bush (bringing democracy to the Middle East).

The challenge with a moralist foreign policy is that the world isn’t simple. Nations have interests driven by economics, history, demographics or the ambitions of a ruler. So, while improving human rights is always laudable, the effort itself must be undertaken with care so as to not inadvertently make things worse (as in Iran in 1979).

An example of how difficult this issue can be to finesse is Egypt. Egypt is arguably the Arab world’s most important nation. Its 79 million people account for much of the region’s doctors, teachers, and technocrats. Yet, from antiquity, Egypt has been run by autocratic rulers. The government, led by Hosni Mubarak since the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, has complete control over what political parties may compete for election. The strongest opposition to the Egyptian regime is the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikwan). They hold 88 seats in the 454 member People’s Assembly, a number held artificially low by the government.

Advocates of pure democracy can’t countenance Egypt’s stunted political development, demanding free elections before Egypt can be considered anything other than a dictatorship. Yet, one need look no further than the Gaza Strip, a territory of 1.5 million people ruled by Egypt from 1948 to 1967, to see the danger inherent in such an approach. After the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority ran Gaza. Corrupt and autocratic, the Palestinian Authority began to lose confidence of the people it claimed to represent, leaving it politically vulnerable. Palestinian parliamentary elections were held in January, 2006, resulting in HAMAS (an Arabic acronym for Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamat al-Islāmiyyah, or “Islamic Resistance Movement”) winning a plurality of 43 percent of the vote. Within a year, HAMAS, demanding more political power, began fighting with FATAH (the name itself being a reverse acronym for Harakat al-taḥrīr al-waṭanī al-filasṭīnī, or “Palestinian National Liberation Movement” with FATAH meaning “conquering” or “victory”). HAMAS prevailed after brutal fighting in Gaza. It has since set up a strict religious state under assistance from the Islamic Republic of Iran, its Hezbollah proxies, and other enemies of freedom and tolerance.

That HAMAS used democracy to strike a blow against democracy and liberty is now evident for anyone to see.

Applying the lesson of the Gaza Strip to Egypt, does anyone truly believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would be any better steward of human rights than the current Mubarak government?

Having lived in Egypt for half a year back in 1984-85, I saw firsthand the government’s heavy hand. Government security agents were on virtually every corner. My writing was censored. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood instigated deadly riots while I was there, even attacking the large Coptic Christian community in Cairo. Consider the fate of Egypt’s eight million Christians if the Muslim Brotherhood gains power by ballot or bullet.

American policy towards Egypt is complicated by the facts on the ground. Egypt isn’t free, but the Muslim Brotherhood alternative is worse. Beyond the Brotherhood’s violent designs on the ten percent of Egyptians who profess Christianity, America also has to be concerned about what the Muslim Brotherhood might do with the most formidable army in the Arab world.

Many of the same considerations for American human rights policy in Egypt are present in Malaysia as well. Freedom House lists Egypt as ranking 6 of 7 in political rights (1 being free and 7 being totalitarian) and 5 of 7 in civil rights for an overall assessment of “Not Free.” Malaysia is ranked at 4 in both categories (up from 5 in both in 2002), earning a “Partly Free” assessment from the human rights group. An important parallel consideration is that of corruption, which harms people’s economic freedom. In this ranking, Transparency International pegs Egypt at 3.1 out of 10 (with 10 representing a perfectly open government) with Malaysia at 4.4 (less corrupt than its immediate neighbors, the Philippines to the north at 2.4 and Indonesia to the south at 2.8).

While Malaysia’s economy has been growing and its political freedoms have improved incrementally in the past few years, especially once Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad retired from the post after 22 years in 2003, progress hasn’t been fast enough to satisfy critics.

When I wrote in the pages of Big Peace on Oct. 26 that Secretary of State Clinton should steer clear of would-be Malaysian reformer Anwar Ibrahim, since he was neither “a government reformer” nor “a moderate Muslim,” I was immediately attacked by Thor Halvorssen. Mr. Halvorssen accused me of not authoring my piece then he launched into an extended attack on the government in Kuala Lumpur. In our back-and-forth exchanges on Big Peace, Mr. Halvorssen cites “inaccurate information” and “errors” in my piece, but does not specify what I wrote that was false, saying, rather, that I left things out of the piece – to which I reply, of course, my piece was focused on Anwar Ibrahim, not on the government of Malaysia.

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It should be noted that Mr. Halvorssen has done good work regarding human rights around the world. Especially noteworthy is his attempt to bring light to the abuses perpetuated by the People’s Republic of China in their Laogai forced labor system. But, and here’s the key point, Mr. Halvorssen is making the same error as President Jimmy Carter in thinking that all human rights abuses by all regimes can be dealt with in the same manner: by immediately applying more freedom and more democracy across the planet (as if we have such power).

As seen in Iran and Nicaragua in 1979 and in the Gaza Strip more recently, political change does not always advance the cause of human freedom.

I urged Secretary of State Clinton to avoid Anwar Ibrahim because he and his political party are not what they want to appear to be to the naïve West. I find it highly instructive that when I cited the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith’s admonition that Anwar Ibrahim was an “anti-Semitic demagogue unworthy of meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State,” Mr. Halvorssen’s response was to attack me and the Malaysian government.

Further, I cited as evidence of Mr. Ibrahim’s unwelcome ties to the Muslim Brotherhood his co-founding of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). Mr. Ibrahim was a trustee of this Muslim Brotherhood front organization as recently as last year. Mr. Halvorssen’s response to that information was to write the following, “I made no comment regarding the International Institute for Islamic Thought because I know nothing about its work or activities.” The problem with this response is that Mr. Ibrahim’s founding of the IIIT, and his continued association with it, are a basic part of my premise that Mr. Ibrahim is not a moderate Muslim worthy of support by the U.S. Secretary of State.

Mr. Halvorssen’s willful ignorance of this point calls to mind another incident involving an Islamist with U.S. ties: the case of Sami al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor who pled guilty in 2006 to assisting the terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Back in 2001 and 2002, Thor Halvorssen, in his role as the executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, defended al-Arian while attacking the University of South Florida for attempting to stifle al-Arian’s academic freedom by firing him. It should be noted that al-Arian’s Islamist sympathies were well-established some ten years before 9/11 when he said at Islamist rallies, “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel,” and, “Let us damn America, let us damn Israel, let us damn them and their allies until death.”

Of even greater interest is that federal prosecutors proved in 2003 that Ibrahim-founded IIIT provided financial support to Sami al-Arian. So, whether or not Mr. Halvorssen cares to know it, the case is clear: Anwar Ibrahim co-founded IIIT, a Muslim Brotherhood front group, who in turn provided financial assistance to convicted terror group supporter Sami al-Arian.

This provides important context to my criticism of Anwar Ibrahim and as well as my views on human rights in general vis-à-vis Mr. Halvorssen.

Mr. Halvorssen accuses me of inconsistency in thinking that things that are horrible in China are not so in Malaysia. Set aside for a moment that Freedom House lists the People’s Republic of China as “Not Free” with a cellar political rights rating of 7 of 7 and a civil rights rating of 6 of 7, compared to Malaysia’s middling 4 of 7 rating in both categories. Let’s examine Mr. Halvorssen’s basic premise: my inconsistency. Mr. Halvorssen wrote that “(DeVore) is under the mistaken assumption that I support Anwar Ibrahim’s political party. I categorically support their right to participate in the political process and to be free from individual rights violations that are carried out against them and their party leader (violations that even DeVore reluctantly acknowledges). If Anwar Ibrahim or his party ever succeeded in becoming a government in Malaysia I would hold them to the same standard that I hold Najib. DeVore’s lack of consistency only calls into question all of his previous criticisms of human rights violators.”

Herein, by the indictment of his own hand, Mr. Halvorssen indulges in the same sort of error that made Jimmy Carter’s presidency the foreign policy disaster that it was: that somehow, people such as Thor Halvorssen and like-minded human rights NGOs, can have any meaningful impact on a nation after it is taken over by Islamist totalitarians.

Unfortunately, to bolster his own case of consistency vs. hypocrisy, Mr. Halvorssen had a chance to hold Mr. Ibrahim to account earlier this year when he was Jew-baiting, as well as last year, and the year before that. Alas, Halvorssen has been silent – likely because Ibrahim isn’t yet able to implement his policies as the head of government.

No doubt, were Mr. Halvorssen able to offer a human rights critique of the Shah’s Iran in 1979, he would have. Such critiques actually did influence some of the Shah’s policies. But the historical fact is clear, as the Shah moved to mollify his critics in the West, President Carter foremost among them, his loosening of political restrictions led directly to his overthrow and the subsequent installation of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s totalitarian theocracy – a regime that, by anyone’s honest calculations, has been far, far worse for Iranians’ human rights than the Shah’s rule ever was.

So, am I inconsistent in my support of human rights around the world? Mr. Halvorssen accuses me so. I disagree in that I consistently view a nation in its own historical context while examining the political opposition and the kind of government it is likely to institute if it gains power.

In the case of the People’s Republic of China, where Mr. Halvorssen and I agree, a loss of control by the Chinese Communist Party would likely result in more liberty for the Chinese people. In the case of Malaysia, I strike a note of caution, maintaining that, despite the ruling party’s flaws, Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition would likely turn back the clock on human liberty, while placing at risk the nation’s substantial non-Muslim population.

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