President George W. Bush and President Jimmy Carter do not have much in common: one was a peanut farmer, the other nearly choked to death on a pretzel. That’s as close as they come, right? Wrong. Don’t we all just love rhetorical questions!
These much maligned presidents share more than just low approval ratings, as they both made very public efforts to promote Human Rights in some of the world’s most oppressive societies. For good and for bad, Carter and Bush put the advancement of democracy and human rights near the top of their foreign policy agendas. Both are well-known for their foreign affairs blunders, (Carter-Iran, Bush-Iraq, Obama stay out of the Middle East no matter what you do!) but they both effectively used their tremendous global influence as US President to shine a light on human oppression throughout the world.
This is not to say that these men had identical or even similar foreign policy records and methods, in ways is they seem light years apart, but their emphasis on universal human rights was a common thread. Each highlighted the efforts of political dissidents from around the globe and made many high profile speeches condemning human rights’s violators. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl highlighted Bush’s work with dissidents from China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Egypt and Venezuela, most of which he brought to the White House’s Roosevelt Room. Interestingly, Bush worked to promote bloggers, writing about freedom and individual and religious rights in many dangerous lands, at times even watching as they posted. Diehl describes the important impact of Bush’s actions:
For the most part, however, the attention of the American president is precious to dissidents. It gains them enormous attention in their own countries and injects their liberal ideas into arenas from which they are usually excluded. Though some may be thrown in jail on their return from the White House, they also gain a de facto immunity from torture or assassination — otherwise a high risk in countries such as Belarus and Burma.
You won’t find Jimmy Carter and W compared on too many occasions and I think it unfortunate that the two don’t seem to communicate well with each other (Carter called Bush the ‘worst president ever’ and they did not seem close at all during the Living President meet up last week). Carter himself had words of advice to President-elect Obama about the importance of promoting American ideals of freedom and individual rights.
The moral footprint of the United States has always been vast. Our next president has an unprecedented opportunity to lead through example by inspiring and supporting those who would reach for freedom and by being tough and effective with those who would impede freedom’s march. All Americans must give him full support.
American Presidents come in all shapes and sizes (well, mostly white and male, mostly), but they all have a shared belief in the strength of the nations’ ideals, the promotion of freedom, individual rights, including free speech and religion, and the pursuit of happiness. I look forward to our new president carrying on this tradition.
(As Bush’s Presidency ends we will do a series of posts about his legacy and foreign policy record.)