A trip around Asia entails a lot of pressers for the President, and as formulaic and stodgy as they can become you never know when the star of the show will fire off a memorable line. Caleb Howe notes that, while addressing the press in Kuala Lumpur, Major Garrett asked Barack Obama why, in general, he hadn’t used his diplomatic “tool kit” to do more to influence foreign leaders to improve on human rights, and in specific why he hadn’t taken a meeting with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, currently in jail for his views and activism. (Or for sodomy, depending who you ask.) His response drew more than a few odd looks.
“I think the Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia’s still got some work to do. Just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do on these issues. Human Rights Watch probably has a list of things they think we should be doing as a government.”
Caleb expresses some surprise, since many assumed that the Apology Tour was over by this point.
This is the first time a sitting President of the United States has made a state visit to Malaysia in almost fifty years. However, the last time the President bad-mouthed the United States in a foreign country is far more recent. From France to Mexico to Afghanistan and Egypt, the President has made a habit of negative assessments of the United States while traveling abroad.
It is especially ironic that a free press was on the list of human rights concerns that President Obama said Malaysia and America need to work on, given the many and increasing reports from White House reporters and the usually sympathetic mainstream press about his administration’s mistreatment and bullying of reporters.
We have some spots where there is probably room for improvement, at least in terms of overcrowding in prisons and citizens being spied on and such, but overall I think most people would agree that the United States has a pretty impressive record on human rights compared to the rest of the planet. In fact, there are areas where some could fairly say that we’re a bit too obsessed with human rights, leading to additional exposure to attacks, both internal and external. But hey… that’s part of the price you pay for living in a mostly free society.
This was an odd choice of words for the President, though. And certainly an odd time and place to break it out.