Obama in Cairo: Bold or timid?
"You know, people forget he went to Cairo. Some people two years ago criticized him for being so forward calling for changes. Every U.S. president, President Bush being the last, called aggressively for reforms, but they were generally in some other context. President Obama went to Cairo and did it and challenged."
--White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Feb. 2, 2011
President Obama's new chief of staff took a risky gambit this week, appearing to claim credit on his boss's behalf for the democracy movement now underway in Egypt. His assertion--especially that Obama's pronouncements were so bold that he took heat for them--certainly demands checking. What actually was said and done in June 2009?
First, to stipulate, we are not offering a defense of George W. Bush's promotion of democracy. Many analysts believe his efforts at democracy promotion in the Middle East were too heavy-handed and paternalistic, and were undercut by the invasion of Iraq. Bush spoke often about democracy in the Middle East--including in Istanbul in 2004--and as we have noted, the Bush administration pulled back after Islamists won at the polls in the Palestinian territories. After Obama took office, his staff said they wanted to dial back some of the rhetoric and rebuild the United States' credibility on human rights. It was in that context that Obama went to Cairo on June 4, 2009, and delivered what was billed as an effort at outreach to the Muslim world.
Obama's speech was so high-profile that it is strange that Daley would claim that "people forget he went to Cairo." It was covered live on television and was the subject of much commentary and analysis. The speech, in many parts eloquent, was part of the collection of speeches that so captivated the Nobel Committee that it awarded Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
The democracy portion of the speech is relatively short, and constitutes the fourth item in a list of five "sources of tension," as the president put it, along with violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation and religious freedom. It is worth quoting the full section of this part of the speech.
"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 by one nation by any other.
"That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.
"But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
"Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.
"This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy."
While these are fine words, note that there are no countries named and no specific laws or practices identified. In many ways, his posture was reflective of a classic foreign-policy "realist," someone who is distrustful of moralizing and who deals with countries according to their impact on U.S. interests.
By contrast, this is how then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about Egypt in her own high-profile democracy speech, delivered in Cairo four years before Obama.
"The Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people. We are all concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy -- men and women -- are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees -- and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.
"The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people -- and to the entire world -- by giving its citizens the freedom to choose. Egypt's elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and participate, and speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs.
"Those who would participate in elections, both supporters and opponents of the government, also have responsibilities. They must accept the rule of law, reject violence, respect the standards of free elections, and peacefully accept the results.
"Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy. There are those who say that democracy is being imposed. In fact, the opposite is true: Democracy is never imposed. It is tyranny that is imposed."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was furious at Rice's speech; he praised Obama's speech. In the end, neither speech pushed him to take steps to open up Egypt's political space. But certainly Rice's language was much more pointed.
The White House did not respond to a request for examples of the "some people" who "criticized him for being so forward calling for changes," as Daley put it. If there were such complaints, they don't turn up in database searches.
Instead, the opposite was true. Obama was criticized for being too timid and tentative about democracy.
In a news release on the day Obama spoke, Human Rights Watch praised the tenor of the speech but faulted Obama for failing to include specifics: "Obama missed an important opportunity to criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries."
Heba Morayef, HRW researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division, went further, saying that "Obama's references to human rights were vague and bland, surely a disappointment to human rights activists in the region." She added: "He could and should have alluded in a far more direct way to the repressive practices of Egypt and many of its neighbours. Those troubled by the signs that the Obama administration is downgrading the place of human rights in US foreign policy will have found nothing reassuring in his speech."
Similarly, Ayman Nour, Egypt's most prominent political dissident, who was imprisoned after challenging Mubarak in a presidential election, complained, "What touched on democracy and human rights in the speech was far less than what we wanted,"
Last year, the Project in Middle East Democracy issued a report titled "After Cairo" that said the administration had failed to follow through with the initiatives suggested in the speech. "The opportunity to durably shift opinions of the U.S. is fading. The perception is mounting that 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," the report said.
The Pinocchio Test
White House staff are often tempted to attribute world-shattering events to the words and vision offered by their boss years earlier. But it is a temptation to be avoided. There is little evidence that Obama's words were considered bold and controversial at the time; to the contrary, he was criticized -- by Egyptians-- for dodging tough issues. The Egyptian government certainly wasn't moved to take action.
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| February 4, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: 2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Middle East
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