Friday, November 16, 2007

To Be Moral or Secure

Another Thursday night, another “debate” featuring the Democrats running for their party’s nomination for the presidency.

From the beginning, it was evident that this would be an unmanageable free-for-all because the format allowed the candidates to “intervene” if they felt that one of their competitors and leveled a personal attack or mischaracterized a position on one or more of the substantive issues brought up by the moderator or his associates.

One of the more arresting questions posed was, initially, about continued military aid to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan who ahs suspended the Pakistani constitution, arrested a number of opposition politicians, “fired” the Chief Justice and other jurists, and imposed martial law – all in the name of preserving the Pakistani state. (Undoubtedly, Musharraf has drawn an exact replica of himself as the state.)

After pursuing the Pakistani situation with Senator Biden and Governor Richardson, moderator Wolf Blitzer came to what I see as the key question of the night – addressed first to Richardson in the form of a clarification: “What you’re saying, Governor, is that human rights, at times, are more important than national security?”

Richardson replied, “Yes.”

At such times, with a clear, concise question eliciting conditions “on the ground,” the listener/viewer must be careful not to mix context. Last night in Las Vegas, the choice presented to the candidates at this juncture was a very familiar one even if it seemed new: whether a U.S. president ought to ignore documented reports of human rights abuses in other countries that are close allies (e.g., the “global war on terror”) but whose government is not a democracy.

The question is one of moral expediency: what is the level of abuse beyond which the price of “doing business” with a tyrannical system actually damages the nation’s moral and legal standing with other countries? One cannot ask this question without thinking of the extreme efforts of the Bush administration to justify non-torture torture.

Blitzer then asked Senator Edwards, who avoided that question and talked about the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons – something that would make the United States truly secure.

Senator Obama, with the substantive points in the same sequence, averred that human rights and national security “are not contradictory” but “are complementary.”

When Senator Dodd was asked the question, there was a slight twist: “What’s more important when they clash, human rights versus national security?” Dodd’s answer was “Well, obviously, national security, keeping the country safe.”

At this point Senator Biden interrupted and said “That’s right.”

Dodd then concluded “The security of the country is number one, obviously, yes, all right?”
Blitzer reversed the choices when he asked Senator Clinton, mentioning national security
which he termed “more important” – before human rights. Clinton replied “I agree with that completely. I mean the first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States,”

For whatever reason, Representative Kucinich was not asked the question, and then when he did allude to the point a few minutes later, did not indicate a choice.

I worry that those so ready to overlook human rights abuses in other countries for what are often questionable “advantages” for U.S. national security will be just as quick to attack the human rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

And you can bet the farm that they will justify curtailing domestic liberties as a matter of “national security.” -- Governor Richardson excepted.

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