Eventually enveloping 5 of the contenders for the Democratic nomination, the discussion began when the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, questioned the call of Gov. Bill Richardson (New Mexico) (left) to cut off military aid to Pakistan unless its President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, moves "to restore the constitution, take off his military uniform, end the national state of emergency and have free and fair elections." Here's the response:
Asked "to weigh in," former Sen. John Edwards (North Carolina) dodged the human-rights-versus-national-security dichotomy posited, and so in turning to Sen. Barack Obama (Illinois) (right), the moderator homed in on that question:
RICHARDSON: ... [W]hat happened with our Pakistan policy, we got our principles wrong. ... [W]e said to Musharraf: 'You know, Musharraf, security is more important than human rights.' If I'm president, it's the other way around -- democracy and human rights. ...
BLITZER: What you're saying, Governor, is that human rights, at times, are more important than American national security?
RICHARDSON: Yes, because I believe we need to find ways to say to the world that, you know, it's not just about what Halliburton wants in Iraq. It's also about our values of freedom, equality. Our strength is not just military and economic. ... Our strength as a nation is our values: equality ... freedom, democracy ... human rights.
BLITZER: ... [I]s human rights more important than American national security?
OBAMA: The concepts are not contradictory, Wolf.
BLITZER: Because occasionally, they could clash.
OBAMA: They are complementary. And I think Pakistan is a great example. Look, we paid $10 billion over the last seven years and we had two goals: deal with terrorism and restore democracy. And we've gotten neither. ... Pakistan's democracy would strengthen our battle against extremists.
The more we see repression, the more there are no outlets for how people can express themselves and their aspirations, the worse off we're going to be, and the more anti-American sentiment there's going to be in the Middle East. We keep on making this mistake. ... And that's going to make us less safe.
Then it was the turn of Sen. Christopher Dodd (Massachusetts) (left):
BLITZER: What is more important, human rights or national security?
DODD: Obviously, national security, keeping the country safe. When you take the oath of office on January 20, you promise to do two things, and that is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and protect our country against enemies both foreign and domestic. The security of the country is number one, obviously.
Finally, the moderator turned from Dodd to Sen. Hillary Clinton (New York) (left):
BLITZER: You say national security is more important than human rights. Senator Clinton, what do you say?A few comments about this colloquy.
CLINTON: I agree with that completely. The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America. That doesn't mean that it is to the exclusion of other interests.
And there's absolutely a connection between a democratic regime and heightened security for the United States. That's what's so tragic about this situation. After 9/11, President Bush had a chance to chart a different course, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and could have been very clear about what our expectations were.
1st, there's the matter of the President's oath, which both Dodd and Clinton misremembered. See below.
2d, there's cause to be disturbed in the degree to which some contenders acceded to the moderator's insistence that "human rights" and "American national security" are at odds with each other, that they "clash" in a manner that demands abstract prioritization of one over the other. Seemed clear to him, at least, that "American national security," standing alone, is the lone right answer. Little need, then, to consider precise context, let alone the security of other states, let alone the security of humanity as a whole. To be commended are those who said otherwise -- who resisted playing the moderator's zero-sum game and instead suggested that in the reinforcement of human rights may be found national security and that, conversely, national security ought to encompass human rights.
Only by acknowledging the complexity of the contemporary world can America's leaders hope truly to improve it.