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Republican leaders like to attack President Obama for “leading from behind” on foreign policy, conflating the wisdom of a leader knowing when to take the lead with knowing when to engage and empower other stakeholders. As Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker and Ben Armbruster from Think Progress have previously pointed out, former President of South Africa and global leader Nelson Mandela discussed the concept in his 1994 biography in a manner that sounds a lot more like the virtues of teaching a man to fish than being unable to “man up”: “I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

nelson mandella

While the blustery GOP saber-rattling on foreign policy espouses more direct confrontation at high risk and cost to America, they are the ones who seem far more sheepish when it comes to America’s moral leadership, willing to relegate our country to second-tier status.

When the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the landmark bipartisan legislation signed by then-President George H.W. Bush made a powerful affirmative statement about our values: that the civil and constitutional rights of every American must constantly be expanded to be more inclusive. It was a moment of moral leadership for the United States on the treatment of Americans with disabilities.

But last week’s Senate vote on a U.N. treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, shamefully made America seem small-minded and exclusive. Based on the ADA, the treaty would have used America’s moral leadership to raise international standards for the treatment of an estimated 650 million disabled people around the world. While 155 nations have signed on, Republicans defeated the measure in a 61-38 vote. Instead of leadership, America offered the world fictitious fearmongering and fairy tales about threats to our sovereignty and children being taken from their parents.

But the United States has two important opportunities to lead the way on affirming our commitment to human dignity and equal rights.

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According to the United Nations, global violence against women is increasing at staggering rates, estimating that a woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds here in America. It has also estimated that in Canada a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six days, that in South Africa, a woman is raped every 23 seconds and in Bangladesh, almost half of women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of their spouses.

The re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, being worked on by Vice President Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is not only good domestic policy, it demonstrates much needed global moral leadership — from the front lines — on women’s rights. It should be a no-brainer to include lesbian, gay and transgender Americans, Native American women and illegal immigrants, sending a powerful message that in America, violence against women — any woman — is not tolerated.

In addition, according to a report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, 76 countries have laws that criminalize behavior — some with the death penalty — on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. With its decision to take up two landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court can also show needed moral leadership from the front lines, with the expansion of rights for gay Americans by affirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

karen finney

Karen Finney
They Hill

Tuesday, 11 December 2012