How committed is Obama to human rights? Not very, it seems. Perhaps his speech in Cairo on Thursday will change one's view of this, but the new President must be judged by actions, not merely words and noble intentions. As my friend Mike Crowley points out:
Cue much muttering about change you can believe in and all the rest of it. I thought James Traub put it rather well in the New York Times on Sunday:“
But when it comes to Egypt, he has already set a tone. Obama has declined to make America's $1.8 billion in foreign aid to Egypt (our second-largest recipient) conditional on political and human-rights reform, and aid specifically for democratic programs has been slashed by more than half, from $55 million to $20 million. Hillary Clinton has spoken cautiously about Egypt's severe political repression.
Quite so. I would add that if three-quarters of Egyptians really profess themselves unhappy with Obama's performance as President then some of this might have something to do with the support his administration has given Hosni Mubarak. Granted, this is not the only matter that concerns Egyptians and doubtless US support for Israel is also a considerable factor.“
Mr. Obama has a gift for eluding antinomies: he is “both-and” rather than “either-or.” But consensus-seeking has its limits. You can demonstrate deep respect for both the state and its people in a democracy like the Czech Republic — but not in a place like Egypt, where the people feel crushed by the state. There you must make a choice. And if the state is a valued ally, it will be a very difficult choice. The dilemma is particularly acute for Mr. Obama, who is seen throughout the world as the incarnation of American democracy, and who well understands America’s power to inspire both hope and resentment. Does he want to be seen as the architect of a policy that gives a dictator free rein in exchange for strategic cooperation? Would that even be a “realist” choice?
Nonetheless, Obama faces the same problem that eventually helped doom the Bush era's too-cornily-named Freedom Agenda: how can you advance the cause of democracy while also relying upon autocratic regimes in places such as Egypt to a) prevent the wrong people from winning elections and b) help you by torturing prisoners who've been "rendered" to Cairo or Damascus or wherever because, in these cases at least, you're too squeamish to torture them yourselves.
It's true that the Freedom Agenda failed. Or is seen to have failed right now. It remains possible that it is too soon to say and that matters may look very different in 30 years time. Equally, we know that Bush's rhetoric was too simplistic (sometimes even recklessly so) and that it too often failed to take account of the complexities and unpleasant realities that tend to proliferate in the real world. Even then, mind you, Bush advocated a "both-and" solution too: the advance of freedom - properly understood as more than just elections - would both be a good thing in its own right and advance long-term US interests. At least in theory, it wasn't an "either-or" proposition.
Now we all understand - or I think we do - that there are times when these ideas must necessarily be long-term aspirations rather than short-term objectives. The US doesn't always have much of a choice anyway: hence dealing with the likes of Pervez Musharraf and Vladimir Putin. Equally, shunning countries because of the nature of their regimes isn't always the most sensible position, least of all from the point of view of the people of those poor countries themselves. So, as so often, it is a question of balance and, as always, a certain amount of hypocrisy is something that is thrust upon Great Powers whether they want it or not.
In the end, mind you, they tend to embrace it. Obama is unusual simply because of the speed with which he seems to have done so. Perhaps his speech on Thursday will tell a different story and, less probably, reflect a different reality. Still, when he says that
"We're not going to get countries to embrace various of our values simply by lecturing or through military means," he said. "We can stand up for human rights, stand up for democracy. But I think it's a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we're not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy."
one may wonder if the Bush administration's errors are likely to be mirrored on the other side of the Values vs Interests equation. And when you're cutting the already tiny amount of money spent on democracy programems in Egypt (0.3% of all US aid to Cairo) in half then, frankly, it's not clear that your claims to be standing up for democracy stand are terribly credible.
And in the long-run that does matter. Extremism has a thousand fathers and one of them, it is not absurd to suppose, is the parade of American presidents preaching the virtue of universal values while simultaneously enabling the regimes that squash any movement that dares believe in, let alone publicly embrace, those values. There's a certain brutal logic to the sternest kind of foreign policy realism, but if that's the view you take you're better off keeping quiet and not making too many grand speeches in foreign capitals.
Granted democratisation is not a universal magic bullet. Nonetheless, relatively few serious terrorist threats have emerged from places in which there is both political freedom and economic opportunity. (Wealth is not the issue: opportunity is.) Alas, it's not easy or simple to say how we should get to a liberalised middle east and it may well be that moving in that direction could well provoke the kind of instability that would increase the risk in the short to medium term while only putatively reducing it in the long-run. That's one of the gambles judgement calls you gotta take. And since politicians only serve four or eight years, there's a powerful incentive to accomodate the status quo, however unpalatable it may be, for fear that the unknown alternative might be even worse. Setting a new direction is much riskier than maintaining the pre-existing course. (You doubt this? Look at US Cuban policy. Mad for decades and unchanged in decades.)
I think it's fair to say that Obama's White House admires George HW Bush more than it does Reagan, Cinton or Bush Junior. At least that's the impression it gives. And in some ways that's no bad thing, given Poppy's chilly pragmatism. But Bush Senior lived for foreign policy; Obama's interests lie in domestic matters and one's long been of the view that his foreign policy views are mostly vastly more conventional than his conservative critics have consistently alleged.
But that actually makes it especially grating for Obama, of all American presidents, to exile democracy promotion. Here, after all, is a man whose story, as he often reminds us, is a different and very amazing American tale that's a testament to the long and often painful journey the United States has travelled towards fulfilling its potential and making good the promises made at its birth. In other words, the 44th President is the product of an American story - and an American opportunity - that could only happen in an open society. The contrast between this story - and all it signifies - and the reality of an administration that chokes off funds designed water democracy movements in foreign lands and thus, in some small way, making it less likely that the Egyptians listening to his speech can enjoy the rights and freedoms their American visitors take for granted. Obama's presence, then, is like giving them a glimpse of water while his administration's actions warn that they better not think about drinking it for years to come.
That's the reality of power? Well, perhaps it is. But if it is then a little humility would be no bad thing. Writing Hosni Mubarak a blank cheque is not something to be proud of. Nor is it likely to pass un-noticed in the rest of the arab world.