Last June, in Cairo, President Barack Obama, at the heart of his speech to the Islamic world, enumerated the many issues that have created tension between the United States and Muslim nations. “The fourth issue that I will address is democracy,” he said, and continued, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Then the President paused, apparently expecting this sensible recognition to prompt a round of applause, but there was silence, and he seemed to stumble. His timing was off; the people in his mostly Egyptian audience had already done their clapping when he uttered the word “democracy.” Tom Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch, who had been an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, said, “I don’t think he was aware that the audience both despised George W. Bush and desperately wanted Bush’s help in their cause.”
Obama, in his Cairo speech and throughout his first year in office, has rightly felt the need to cleanse the air of the arrogance and the folly of his predecessor. There is no more American moralizing or hectoring about freedom, no simplistic division of the world into good and evil. Instead of “with us or against us,” the key phrase in Obama’s foreign policy has been “mutual interest and mutual respect.” Rather than asserting America’s moral right to dominate, Obama has spent much of his term renewing American partnerships with countries like Russia, rebuilding multilateral institutions like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and trying to engage with hostile regimes like Iran.
Early on, to prepare the ground for a strategy of engagement, Obama muted his Administration’s criticisms of authoritarian states. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first official trip to China, in February, 2009, assured her hosts that human rights wouldn’t interfere with economic and security concerns—a comment that was greeted with dismay by human-rights advocates. The President’s envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, announced that the U.S. would deal directly with the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Since last June’s fraudulent elections in Iran, Administration officials, including the President, have not found a consistent way to condemn the state’s violence against demonstrators. Last November, on a trip to China, Obama spoke in support of dialogue with the Dalai Lama and against censorship but allowed the Communist government to keep tight control over a town-hall meeting in Shanghai.
Over time, the President and his officials have acquired a more supple voice, finding a better balance between engagement and criticism. In January, for example, Clinton delivered an important speech on freedom of the Internet, a blow aimed at Beijing, among others. Obama has begun to speak more frequently and forcefully about what he calls “universal rights,” emphasizing that they are not an American invention. But the perception has been established: this Administration will devote its energy to repairing relations with foreign governments, and will not risk them for the sake of human rights. Where the stakes are low, as in the West African nation of Guinea, the Administration speaks out against atrocities, with positive effect; but where there’s a strategic interest, as in Ethiopia, which has jailed dozens of journalists and opposition politicians, the policy is mainly accommodation.
At the same time, Obama is reaching far beyond Realpolitik. Beginning in Cairo, continuing last summer with speeches in Moscow and Accra, and culminating, in December, with his Nobel Peace Prize address in Oslo, he has articulated a vision of international relations as something more than a zero-sum power struggle, of human interconnectedness beyond the old divisions—“an insistence,” he said in Oslo, “that there’s something irreducible that we all share.” (Perhaps the most dramatic example is Obama’s push for a reduction of nuclear weapons worldwide.) In all his major foreign-policy speeches, he has made a point of offering this vision to young people, obviously aware of his power to inspire them.
But in some countries inspiration is falling into the gap between soaring speeches and concrete action. An important test is Egypt: with elections coming this year, a nepotistic kleptocracy is trying to suppress the ferment of a diverse and growing opposition. Egypt represents the most significant prospect for democratic reform in the Arab world. So far, however, the Administration has stood by a policy of strengthening relations with the government of Hosni Mubarak: the U.S. has reduced funding for programs that support local democracy activists, and, at Cairo’s insistence, has cut most aid for civil-society organizations (such as independent election monitors) that are not officially registered—that is, groups that aren’t tools of the regime.
The Cairo speech laid out a series of initiatives for America’s reëngagement with Muslim countries. Almost a year later, as a few of those initiatives have begun to take shape, a general pattern has emerged. The programs focus on entrepreneurship and business development, science education, women’s and children’s health, student exchanges. They do not cover human rights, political empowerment of women, or governance. After an internal debate, the Administration decided to stay away from these more sensitive topics at first and, instead, to build credibility in worthy but uncontroversial areas. It was a legitimate decision, but it has reinforced a view among some Arab reformers that, according to a recent report by the Project on Middle East Democracy, “President Obama has said the right words, but is unwilling or unable to offer substantive new policies to support the aspirations of people in the Middle East.”
Obama is coming up against the limitations of engagement. What if people around the world want more than a humble adjustment in America’s tone and behavior? What if American overtures to nasty regimes fail, because those regimes have a different view of their own survival? Then the President will have to devise a fallback strategy—preferably one that answers the desires of the people who applauded in Cairo, and doesn’t leave another generation cynical about American promises. ♦