The State Department's 10 worst human-rights offenders

Jonathan Farrar, an acting assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. State Department's annual human rights country reports, had this to say Tuesday about China's unexpected removal from the list of the 10 worst human-rights offenders:

Countries in which power was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers remain the most systematic human rights violators. Here we would cite North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan. Some authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform have experienced rapid social change, but have not undertaken democratic political reform and continue to deny their citizens basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. China remains a case in point.

Looking at the list of countries above -- all of whom have terrible human rights records -- I have to wonder: Why not Saudi Arabia, where there is no formal constitution, women have very few rights, and "there is no legal recognition or protection of religious freedom"? Is Iran really worse than China, which has "tens of thousands of political prisoners," according to the report? At least Iran has contested politics, even if the hardliners always seem to win these days. All of which is to say that State's criteria are pretty fuzzy, as is understandable given the unquantifiable nature of many of the issues in question. So why have the ranking at all?


Not much foreign-policy experience? Wanna be president? Get in line

The Obama campaign came out swinging Tuesday with a memo by former State Department Policy Planning chief Greg Craig -- who is most noted for defending Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial -- detailing the holes in Hillary Clinton's claims that she has amassed vast amounts of foreign-policy experience over the last 15 years. Since Clinton is making these claims, I guess they deserve a closer look. But in general, all this talk of a foreign-policy threshold for presidents is profoundly overdone.

Pop quiz: Name the presidents since World War II who might have passed this so-called threshold? Certainly not Clinton's own husband, who arguably came to office with the least-developed foreign policy mind of any 20th-century president. Ike, LBJ, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush are four who might pass "the threshold." Maybe Gerald Ford, who served more than two decades in the House, then was Nixon's veep. But the truth is, most presidents would not qualify, including JFK, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and, yes, Ronald Reagan, whom many credit with winning the Cold War.

I care deeply about foreign policy, so I'd like to think my choice in candidates is based in part upon their understanding and experience in the conduct of international affairs. But let's be honest: Experience is hardly a guarantee that a president's policies will be sound. Consider Nixon, who served two terms as vice president under General Eisenhower, then went on to no great glory in Vietnam. George H.W. Bush's victory in the first Gulf War looks good in hindsight, but many trash-talked him at the time for not taking out Saddam. Need I mention Dick Cheney? The idea that foreign-policy experience is a silly litmus test for presidents was pointed out with some eloquence by the New York Times' Helene Cooper in a piece which, unfortunately, ran last August while everyone was at the beach. It's worth going back to:

But does time spent as United Nations ambassador, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or first lady really cut much ice when you become commander in chief? A surprising number of experts on American presidencies said 'no.'"

It shouldn't be that surprising. There's just very little evidence that foreign-policy experience leads to good foreign policies in office.