But those comments were taken out of context and the discussion of the law was meant to show the differences between how a free society handles human rights issues and the restrictive practices enforced in China, Posner tells The Cable in an exclusive interview.
"The broader context in which this was raised was to discuss the political openness of this society and the value of an open debate," Posner said. "We never did get into the merits of the Arizona law. It was not in any way a comparison between that law and any specific law or practice in China."
Posner said during his Friday press conference that the Arizona legislation was mentioned "as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination."
But that comment, too, was misinterpreted, according to Posner.
"I should have been clearer, what I was saying is that there is broader issue in [American] society about discrimination and we need constantly and always to be addressing that issue," he said.
Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl released a statement Tuesday calling on Posner to issue a formal apology. They called his remarks "particularly offensive" and said he "seemed to imply [the Arizona law] is morally equivalent to China's persistent pattern of abuse and repression of its people."
"That simply is not the case," Posner responded, saying he had no plans to apologize but hope his clarifications would convince the senators their concerns were misplaced.
"The only thing that was said was that the debate is about a law that some critics would say has the unintended consequence to discriminate against legal or illegal residents. We did not comment on the particulars of whether that's true or not," Posner explained.
Posner's remarks came under fire in part because they fit a narrative among conservatives that the Obama administration is not pressing authoritarian governments strongly enough on human rights.
Last month, Obama reportedly told Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, "We, too, are working to improve our democracy," when meeting with him on the sidelines of last month's nuclear security summit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was heavily criticized last February when she said during a China trip that human rights issues "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
But Posner, who has a 30-year track record as a leader in the human rights field, said that different situations call for different approaches.
"In some instances it is more effective to discuss things privately with governments. But that's not enough. There are some moments when it's equally important to be publicly visible," he said.
Responding to criticism of the U.S. human rights dialogue with China, Posner said that after a long period of having no formal mechanism to discuss human rights with the Chinese, now there was a structure that could be built upon. There will be another round of talks next year in Beijing, and the State Department is setting up bilateral working groups with experts on legal, religious, and labor rights issues.
"This represents the foundation for a future set of discussions that could pave the way for future progress," he said, adding that last week's meetings were "respectful in tone but direct in content."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.