My answer is that we must balance our interests and our values. We’ve seen the limits of raw idealism in Libya, but also the limits of raw military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. We achieve change sometimes by dropping bombs, yes, but sometimes by supporting education and human rights, including women’s rights. The Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai because they understand that in the long run, the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.
Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership during the Arab Spring, told me that the world is waiting to see if Biden will press regimes to release detainees and uphold women’s rights. “The world is watching U.S. policy to make sure that Trump is an abnormal case in the U.S. foreign policy, and not an American approach,” she said.
The world is painted in grays. Barack Obama believed in human rights, but he allowed hundreds of thousands of Syrians to be slaughtered because he worried about entering a quagmire.
Egypt’s repressive regime is already challenging Biden by detaining relatives of an Egyptian-American activist, Mohamed Soltan. It’s not clear what leverage Biden has to help pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar or dislodge a dictator in Venezuela, let alone to end a cultural genocide in China’s Xinjiang region.
But we can at least find our voice. The Trump administration denounced abuses in Venezuela, China and Iran, but if you care about human rights only in countries you don’t like, you don’t actually care about human rights. And under Trump, disrespect for democratic rights abroad leached into disrespect for such rights at home.
We should seek inspiration from brave women like Minna and Amal in Egypt, or al-Hathloul in Saudi Arabia. If they, armed only with principles, can stand up to thugs and dictators abroad, then surely we can too.
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