Virtually all politicians experience something of the tempering effects of public office, but it is rare indeed that an American president reverses his position on a major issue. Yet Ronald Reagan seems to have done just that, picking up the pieces of a human rights policy he tried very hard to dismantle in his first days as president. It was a hesitant and somewhat opportunistic shift, but ironically it may help to strengthen the policy he inherited.
From its first days in office the Reagan Administration made no secret of its contempt for former President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. The question of how much human rights should figure in American foreign policy had been a prominent issue in the 1980 election campaign. Even as a candidate, Reagan had associated himself with Jeane Kirkpatrick, whom he later designated as the United States’ permanent representative to the United Nations, and with her widely publicized view that Carter’s moralist human rights policy had been detrimental to American strategic interests.
One of the new President’s first acts was to nominate Ernest Lefever—a man who had suggested that the promotion of human rights abroad should not be the responsibility of the United States—to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. From the outset, then, human rights advocates in Congress and outside the government braced for a battle with the new President.
By early 1986, the world had turned over many times. Human rights concerns had by then exercised a considerable effect on the Administration’s policies toward El Salvador, South Africa, Turkey, South Korea, Poland, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union, among other countries. Then, in February 1986, Presidents Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti—American allies both, with egregious human rights records—were driven from office, with some help from Washington. In mid-March, President Reagan delivered a statement to Congress, claiming credit for these events and vowing in the name of human rights to continue
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