Wolf Blitzer: "Is Human Rights More Important than American National Security?"

by Laura Snedeker

What crossed CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s mind when he asked the question in the title during Thursday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas? It sounded like a preposterous joke played to highlight the insanity of choosing national security over human rights, and a pointed interrogation conducted to snoop out the un-Americans.

Was Blitzer asking if the Democratic candidates would support nebulous concepts of “human rights” over concrete national security policies, or if they would sacrifice democratic ideals upon the altar of the National Security State?

The question came less than an hour into the night, but it should have marked the permanent end of debate for the presidential campaign season.

For the first time, the media forced the Democratic candidates to choose between what are considered mutually exclusive conditions of safety and freedom, indicating that the government’s attitude towards human rights since September 11th has caused doubt over whether the state can be trusted to behave responsibly.

The question followed a dialogue on the emergency situation in Pakistan (see: "Pakistan: Where Terror Trumps Democracy" for more), during which former UN Ambassador and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he would make all further aid conditional upon extensive democratic reforms.

“If I’m president, it’s the other way around – democracy and human rights,” Richardson said after calling out the Bush administration for relegating the latter to the back burner.

“I would say, President Musharraf, unless you restore the constitution; unless you have elections in January; unless you end the state of emergency; unless you allow Benazir Bhutto to run as a candidate; unless you put the supreme court back,” the U.S. will cut military aid, Richardson said.

Former Senator John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) attempted to avoid Blitzer's question by focusing on the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but showed discomfort with America’s support for ineffective dictators. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stated unequivocally that national security is not only more important than human rights on the international stage, but that it takes domestic supremacy as well.

“The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America,” Clinton said, forgetting that the president also swears to “uphold and defend” the Constitution.

It is not necessarily significant that some Democratic candidates are so quick to dismiss human rights; the cynics among us who watched them dance around the issue assumed this already. It is significant that they admitted it in such a straightforward fashion and that CNN so readily moved on to other questions.

Appropriate to the debate's location, this was less of a debate than it was a show put on by the media in collaboration with the audience, who served much the same purpose as a studio audience serves for late-night television. The viewer gets the impression that they are watching human interaction, not merely the motions of actors on a stage.

The directors wasted no time to introduce a conflict. CNN’s Campbell Brown first asked the candidates to respond to accusations made during and after previous debates. She asked Clinton to respond to the accusation that she engaged in the “politics of parsing” by avoiding firm positions on controversial issues.

Equally reluctant to raise controversial issues, the media repeatedly asked the candidates for a counterattack against their opponents instead of digging deeply into substance. The media act as an instigator: like the clever child who knows he can entertain by provoking a fight. And then they step back. Instead of acting on behalf of the public, they increasingly turn over their duties of questioning and analysis to the public when the situation heats up.

The mainstream media are more comfortable playing the role of the intermediary between candidates than intermediary between the public and the politicians. No candidate challenged Clinton or Dodd to explain their dismissal of human rights, and until one does, the media will continue to ignore what should be the biggest breaking news of the campaign.

(The photo of Wolf Blitzer is used with a GNU Free Documentation License. To see these sections of the Democratic debate, please see the video clips below.)

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Bianca Reagan said...

I'm watching this right now, and Dennis Kucinich just called out Senator Edwards on his vote to allow free trade with China. And then Wolf Blitzer interrupted because . . . well, I don't know why. But I was all, "Oh, snap, that's right Dennis Kucinich. He told you, John Edwards."

Laura Snedeker said...

The mainstream media doesn't take Kucinich very seriously, even though he's defintely challenging Edwards' monopoly on the populist message.

It's always interesting to watch who the moderator interrupts and when (and who is given the most time). It raises the issue of just how much the media has created this dynamic of two frontrunners and a third close behind. There's Experience (Clinton), Change (Obama), and Populism, and there just isn't room for anyone else.

I'm a little annoyed at the goofy questions that audience members ask (and that CNN wanted to end the debate with). I guess it's "funny" to ask a boxers-or-briefs type question, but it doesn't help to make the debate look less silly. I don't think I'd want to stand up on national TV and make myself look like a ditz by asking Clinton's jewellery preference.

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