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U.S. Response To The Protests May Affect Country's Image As A Democracy Promoter


For U.S. diplomats serving abroad, this is a challenging time to promote democracy and human rights. The images of American security forces charging protesters near the White House are reverberating around the world, as are President Trump's calls for the military to get U.S. cities under control. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Tamara Wittes was an Obama administration official at the State Department who worked on democracy in the Middle East. Now she's worried about democracy at home.

TAMARA WITTES: When I see things like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in battle fatigues, walking on the streets of my city, where he has no authority because his troops play no role in law enforcement (laughter), that to me, is troubling.

KELEMEN: It happened last night after federal authorities launched tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters before President Trump posed for pictures outside a nearby damaged church. Today, Trump was touting his efforts to promote religious freedom, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with survivors of China's 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square. Wittes, who's with the Brookings Institution, says American diplomats should stand up for human rights in China. But, speaking via Skype, she says Trump undermines that.

WITTES: When the president of the United States cannot distinguish between the peaceful expression of political views and labels it as thugs and chaos and carnage, then he is delegitimizing political protest, which is a core component of any free society.

KELEMEN: Officials in China and Iran accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. Last year, the U.S. was blasting Iran for cracking down on protesters. Now Iran's English-language Press TV is turning the table.


YUSEF JALALI: Now rights activists here say the irony is that all these, quote, "crimes against humanity" are taking place in a country that claims to be the pioneer of human rights. Yusef Jalali, Press TV, Tehran.

KELEMEN: This is not surprising to the Atlantic Council's Daniel Fried, who spent 40 years in the foreign service working mostly on Central and Eastern Europe.

DANIEL FRIED: Soviet propaganda would always talk about, you know, discrimination and lynchings in the South, as if it justified what they were doing. So this is not new; it's old.

KELEMEN: Fried says the best way to confront such propaganda is to be honest about America's failings, as the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe was this week. The ambassador, Brian Nichols, who's African American, put out a statement saying the police killing of George Floyd left Americans in horror and anger. But the country has always aspired to be better, he writes, and Americans will continue to speak out for justice, whether at home or abroad. Fried says that's what American partners want to hear.

FRIED: America's friends are dismayed and, you know, shaken by this. They want to have faith in us.

KELEMEN: Fried takes the long view, pointing out that the U.S. has been through tumultuous times before, and an election is coming up in November.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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