In the very first days of Jimmy Carter's presidential administration, back in January 1977, a black American friend approached me with heartfelt enthusiasm. "For the first time in years I'm proud of my country," he said. "Our president is speaking out for human rights."
Critics have rightly pointed out that Carter's support for human rights was selective. He was harder on the Soviet Union and its satellites, and he notoriously praised the Shah of Iran not long before the uprising there.
And yet. Carter's outspokenness did prompt changes. In 1976, the Indonesian dictator Suharto, an American ally, still held 100,000 political prisoners, including that country's leading writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Over the next four years, most of them were released. When I met Pramoedya and other dissidents in Jakarta a few years later, they were thankful for Carter's pressure.
Similarly, Freud Jean, a human rights priest in Haiti, later told me that the pressure from the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier started to ease once Carter was in the White House.
No one in the worldwide struggle for human rights will remember the first years of the Obama administration with the same gratitude. There was mushmouthed waffling over Israel's murderous attack on Gaza, and its piracy on the high seas. There has been nothing memorable said about the brave dissidents in Chinese prisons.
And now, Egypt. Obama's weaselling started even before the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent Egyptian citizens streamed into their streets demanding democratic change. The United States had already toned down critical language about the regular mass arrests and the rigged "elections" late last year.
Even the George W. Bush administration was more outspoken.