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American interests and rhetoric are colliding, and one may eventually have to give. Which will it be?

Looking back on the anniversary of President Obama's Cairo speech, Michael Rubin is troubled by the administration's freedom agenda - or lack thereof:

On this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, the silence of the Obama administration in the face of backsliding on rights, freedom, and liberty in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Arab states such as Egypt and Yemen, is deafening. In recent weeks, independent journalists in Kurdistan have begun to receive cell phone death threats (as Sardasht did before his murder). When they have gone to security to lodge complaints, the journalists are harassed. It is now only a matter of time until more journalists are whacked. The victims are not insurgents nor violent Islamists, but rather liberals and the best of the new generation. Obama’s inaction is dangerous because, when administration officials like assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman or U.S. congressmen on a junket take their photos with Barzani, cynicism grows about perceived U.S. endorsement dictators; this in turn encourages anti-Americanism.

Many visitors describe their experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan as positive; my twenty-plus trips were. Certainly, Kurdistan shines compared to Baghdad if not, increasingly, Basra. The problem is that, on human rights, stability, and liberty, the trajectory in Iraqi Kurdistan is backwards. [Emphasis my own - KS]

To which Matt Duss retorts:

I don’t disagree with Michael here on the Obama administration’s lack of follow-through on the promise of the Cairo speech, which I’ve found deeply disappointing, or with his concern about the increasing oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor do I disagree that cuddling up to dictators encourages cynicism and anti-Americanism (though isn’t it interesting how conservatives can make such claims without being accused of “blaming America”?) As you can see from the photo at right (Bush shaking hands with Barzani), Bush himself knew quite a bit about cuddling up to dictators.

I do disagree, however, with his use of “backsliding” here, as if George W. Bush left the region on a pro-democracy trajectory, which he most certainly didn’t.

How about we cut both presidents some slack, and accept the fact that American officials are going to do the occasional photo-op with thugs, dictators and generally bad people? This strikes me as yet another example of American interests and rhetoric being in conflict. The potential to look foolish and hypocritical will always exist so long as the United States is in the business of everyone else's business.

The United States decided back in 2003 that the overall stability of Iraq was a long-term strategic interest in the War on Terrorism, and we've lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in securing that supposed interest. Indeed, the very idea behind the strategic recalibration known as "The Surge" was to give all of Iraq the breathing room it required in order to become more like Kurdistan.

Can Washington rightfully turn around then and demand that Iraqi Kurdistan be freer-er? Is that consistent with the overall, long-term investment the United States has made in Iraq?

Even setting aside the freedom agenda, at what point must the United States decide that the business of global trade and commerce permits only a limited amount of rhetoric regarding freedom and democracy? Were all of the world's resources conveniently positioned under the world's democracies this wouldn't be so difficult. Sadly, this isn't the case. (Setting aside China's economic growth as compared to our more democratic allies in Europe.)

Take a step back and look at what, where and who the United States is in bed with around the globe, and then tell me that it's the American president's job to prevent journalists from receiving death threats in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is of course a terrible situation, but doesn't our executive have more pressing matters to attend to?

Dictatorships and otherwise isolated regimes have the luxury of rhetorical rigidity. America does not. Interests and rhetoric are colliding, and one may eventually have to give. So which will it be?

UPDATE: Evan Feigenbaum points out how China has its own problems in this area.

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