How might tomorrow's presidential election affect U.S. policy on human rights? The common wisdom is that unlike their sharp divergences on domestic policy, there isn't much difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy. That is only partly true.
Both Obama and Romney are outraged by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his people, but neither has detailed how to ratchet up the pressure to stop it. Romney has largely endorsed Obama's exit strategy for Afghanistan, emphasizing perhaps a more gradual withdrawal but adding no details to Obama's disturbingly vague pronouncements about protecting women's rights after the troops depart. On China and Russia, Romney's rhetoric has been tougher than Obama's. But that's mainly the case when Romney is addressing a perceived strategic threat (Russia) and economic threat (China), with no visible difference between the candidates on how to address these countries' worsening crackdowns on domestic critics.
respect to Obama's more muscular policies, Romney largely supported the
military effort to stop the Qaddafi government's killings in Libya as well as
Obama's decision to send military advisors to Africa to help capture the
leaders of the murderous Lord's Resistance Army. Depending perhaps on which of his foreign-policy
advisors prevail, Romney will likely pursue Obama's pragmatic approach to the International Criminal
Court, working with the institution to address mass atrocities (at least by
non-allies) while seeking neither to join the court nor to cripple it as George W. Bush's administration did in its
By the same token, both candidates seem to share the same blind spots for human rights advocacy, largely exempting allies such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. On the biggest blind spot -- Israel -- Obama was initially willing to press Israeli leaders on the expansion of settlements. Recently, however, the candidates have been competing to embrace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard line toward Palestinians in a bid to capture the diminishing slice of American Jewry whose vote is determined by such pandering.
Obama, meanwhile, has used drones to kill terrorist suspects without articulating legal criteria that are focused enough to ensure compliance with international law. That allows unscrupulous leaders to interpret his precedent as license to designate their own political opponents as terrorists (say, Russia's Chechens or China's Uighurs) and order their targeted killing wherever they might be found. Romney has endorsed the drone program without qualification in this regard.
That said, differences between the candidates are apparent in several areas, including counterterrorism. To his credit, Obama has ended torture such as waterboarding that the Bush administration authorized under the guise of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Today, all U.S. interrogators must comply with the Army's Field Manual -- an important step toward curbing abuse. Romney, by contrast -- while foreswearing "torture" as Bush did -- has said he would allow some unspecified "enhanced" interrogation techniques that go beyond those prohibited by the field manual, and he does not consider waterboarding torture. That is particularly worrying because, under his policy of "looking forward," not back, Obama has refused to authorize the investigation and prosecution of the Bush torturers. As a result, political leaders in the United States can see torture as a "policy option" rather than the crime it clearly is.
While failing to keep his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, Obama has at least drawn the line at not adding new detainees, confining the detention center to a Bush legacy issue. New terrorism suspects have been tried in regular federal court. Obama briefly attempted to try some Guantánamo detainees in federal court, but ultimately capitulated to bipartisan pressure to use military commissions instead, even though, operating under new and sometimes unfair rules, military commissions have proven grindingly slow and ineffective. Romney has spoken approvingly about Guantánamo -- at one point in 2007 saying, "We ought to double Guantánamo."