Merely two weeks after Barack Obama warned Donald Trump that U.S. presidents always have to be “on the side of what’s right,” the president-elect took a phone call from the new president of free and democratic Taiwan.
It wasn’t an isolated event. Days earlier, when Fidel Castro died, Trump rightly condemned the communist tyrant for leaving a legacy of “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
So far, so good, right? Trump is landing “on the side of what’s right,” is he not?
Well, not if you read the commentariat. Harvard’s Larry Summers called Trump’s reaction to Castro “problematic.” As for the call with Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, people who couldn’t find the island on a map have been freaking out.
We don’t know what kind of president Trump will make, and he has worried some human rights activists by refusing to condemn Vladimir Putin. But so far, Trump’s record of being on the side of what’s right contrasts well with President Obama’s. For all his preening and posing about owning the moral high ground, Obama has consistently disappointed those who truly are on the side of what’s right: the dissidents who risk all to fight dictatorial regimes around the globe.
In his first inaugural, he said, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Yet he soon set out to shake every clenched fist from Tehran to Havana.
Obama received his first test as a new president the summer after being sworn in, when thousands of Iranians turned to the streets to protest sham elections that produced one of the most anti-American and anti-Israel leaders that Iran has ever had, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The demonstrators defied the regime by chanting not the scripted “Death to America” but instead “Death to Russia” and “Death to China” — dictatorial regimes that had recognized Ahmadinejad.
And what did the dissidents get from Obama? Crickets.
Worse than that, actually. According to David Feith and Barri Weiss (writing in The Wall Street Journal at the time), an Obama administration obsessed with negotiating with the mullahs cut funding for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which documented human rights abuses; for the International Republican Institute, which had been training dissidents; and for Freedom House, the watchdog group that had applied for more funds for its Farsi-English online journal of democracy and human rights.
And when Hong Kong residents in 2014 took to the streets in massive numbers to protest heavy-handed Chinese rule, Obama [washed his hands of the problem]. Our consulate in Hong Kong issued an unprincipled statement that read:
“We do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development, nor do we support any particular individuals or groups involved in it. … We encourage all sides to refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions, to exercise restraint and to express views on [Hong Kong’s] political development in a peaceful manner.”
The blind dissident Chen Guangcheng told me in an interview a year later, as Obama held a state dinner for Chinese leader Xin Jinping, “Obama should be on the side of the rights of the Chinese people, not on the side of the leader of the Communist Party.”
With Cuba, his opening to the Castro dictatorship was so one-sided, so riddled with unilateral concessions, that when Trump was elected on Nov. 8, Cuban dissidents celebrated. “Obama, you’re leaving at last,” said the activist Ailer Gonzalez in a video.
“We hope that the issue of political prisoners will come back to be a priority. I think that with Trump’s arrival, we will be able to rescue this ally we always had, the United States,” he added.
Self-congratulatory nostrums about being “on the right side of history” aside, this is what world dissidents think about Obama and the hopes that, at least in Cuba, they harbor for Trump.
We know what the past eight years have been like. We will soon find out what the future holds.