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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

Obama in Cairo: Bold or timid?

By Glenn Kessler

"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?

The Facts

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.

Two Pinocchios


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By Glenn Kessler  | February 4, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Middle East  
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Comments

"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. "

LOL. So liberal Glenn Kessler doesn't like Bush. Big shocker.

Gee, when is the last time that Glenn gave such a disclaimer when giving credit to a Democrat?

The Post is a partisan joke.

Posted by: bobmoses | February 4, 2011 7:48 AM | Report abuse

What our own government does (not says) in the next few days will give us, the US citizens, an idea of whether or not it is willing to "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk" as it has done for 30 years regarding Egypt.

All well and good to call for a "new beginning" and to praise democracy and freedoms - but for years we have supported a de facto dictator and provided military aid at the cost of humanitarian aid for the people of Egypt.

Now we will see if our own government will actually support the protestors who fight for free elections and a voice in their own country's government.

Posted by: Utahreb | February 4, 2011 8:20 AM | Report abuse


"Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure."

Participatory government is a better way to organize a state. What if the will of the people is to oppose the US? Haven't you then created a more formidable enemy?

Posted by: edbyronadams | February 4, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for showing the contrast between the speeches. Condi Rice was clearly more explicit and assertive, although I would argue there is a place for both types of speeches: the general one given by Obama reaches a place deep inside the psyche and reminds oppressors of their humanity; the more direct one explicitly supports the oppressed in their efforts by outlining how a society gets there.

While I agree that Obama now needs to step up his game, I also think that the Bush administration failed to create the transformative dialogue that may now be occurring. Labelling countries as "evil" was small and counterproductive. So was invading Iraq.

Posted by: rosefarm1 | February 4, 2011 9:16 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Oh?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/05/gop-senator-conservative_n_211780.html

There's Sean Hannity, Marc Theissen, and Jim Inhofe all criticizing the Cairo speech.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/04/barack-obama-cairo-speech-republicans

Here's some more. They were criticizing it for being too nice to the Middle East. They didn't want him to reach out to ME nations with offers of friendship.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 4, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Participatory government is a better way to organize a state. What if the will of the people is to oppose the US? Haven't you then created a more formidable enemy?

Posted by: edbyronadams
--------------------------
Maybe the US needs to learn the difference between opposition and enmity.

Not everyone who opposes you is an enemy. They may merely disagree on some issue, like how they are to run their own lives (which the US would like to run instead).

But that kind of opposition need not become enmity unless the US insists on imposing its will.

Posted by: rjpal | February 4, 2011 10:00 AM | Report abuse

of the two speeches cited, the first by President Obama and the second by former Sec. of State Rice, that of Rice was definitely more on target than our President -- irregardless of the international situation of the time (2006 War in Iraq).

No matter who the POTUS is here, the ability to foment change in another country's form of government and its leadership is putting our nation at risk -- as has been proven during the last 60 years -- if the people want elections and democracy then they will make the changes -- and many times it will result in bloodshed as opposing factions seek to assume the reins of government.

President Obama has tools and influence at his disposal to help shepherd the present Egyptian leadership onto the road of democracy but to date we here in America do not know what steps he is taking -- it can be assumed that foreign aid, talks with the military, and talks with the leadership of suppressed political parties are on-going -- if not, then the outcome in Egypt will be a toss of the coin......

Posted by: hbw2000 | February 4, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

The US point of view is simple. It says to the people of the Middle East, "You want freedom and democracy. We appreciate that. But we need oil and we are going to pursue Israel's interests above yours. So if there is a difference of opinion, don't forget that we have the better arms and more money."

Posted by: rjpal | February 4, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Why does the US seem to think it has some sort of god given right to insert itself into the affairs of sovereign nations? What goes on in Egypt is none of our business. Would we like it if a foreign nation stuck its nose into our business?

Posted by: markbau | February 4, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

To dkp01:

To clarify, I was not saying there was no criticism of Obama's speech. Some conservatives certainly attacked various aspects of Obama's address, especially regarding his outreach to Muslims or his comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That's easy to find. I was addressing directly Daley's claim--that "some people two years ago criticized him for being so forward calling for changes." I did not find conservative--or other--criticism that Obama was being too bold in his democracy section of the speech. If you can find that, send it along!

Posted by: glennkessler | February 4, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

@glennkessler, I'm not sure what you're looking for. His statement, "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," combined with his recognition of Hamas's popularity and leadership role previously in the speech did cause consternation amongst some conservatives that he was reaching out too much. So did the inclusion of members of Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood:

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/06/03/muslim-brotherhood-members-attend-obamas-cairo-speech/

"The expected attendance of the Brotherhood members already is stirring some criticism from conservatives in the U.S. who say they do not represent the kind of moderate Muslims Obama should be appealing to.

'What kind of signal are we sending?' said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, warning that such an invitation will be seen more as a sign of weakness than strength. 'I think the president takes some big risks by unilaterally putting out these olive branches.'"

This is the sort of criticism Daley was describing; Obama called for Democratic reform and backed it up by stating the US would recognize freely elected governments, even if they happened to be governments that might oppose the US or US interests. That is a sea change from what previous administrations did and called for, and it was thoroughly criticized for being too open to the idea that ME nations might not elect US-backed governments.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 4, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse

How can you put Rice's and Obama's speeches in the same context? For that matter, how can you compare Bush's actions and Obama's? Rice knew she didn't have to support her speech with any meaningful action, just like Bush called for the spreading of democracy in the ME but his only goal was to use it as a pretense to topple Saddam.

Posted by: KT11 | February 4, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

To dkp01:

This is better but I still don't think it is on point. Invites to the MB may have annoyed conservatives but that is just uninformed; even in the Bush administration the ambassador would quietly meet with the MB. Daley was talking about "calling for changes"--ie, democracy. I still have not found anyone who criticized Obama for being too forward on the democracy section of his speech. It also think it is instructive that the White House, despite my request, did not come up with a list of examples. I guarantee you that if there was anything that would back up Daley's statement, it would have been swiftly provided.

Posted by: glennkessler | February 4, 2011 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Although President Bush's Middle East policy was heavy handed, no one can plausibly say that Saddam's abrupt departure from office left a power vacuum in Iraq.

As for the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Egypt, President Obama's response is somewhere between loosey goosey and reckless. In rebuttal to President Obama's call that a transition begin immediately, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak correctly pointed out that a transition is not possible if a new government is not in place to assume power.

As for his speech in Cairo (and more recently in response to the Tucson shootings), President Obama excels at giving soaring rhetorical and platitude-laden speeches. However in response to a crisis, whether an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or violent demonstrations in Cairo, President Obama cannot articulate timely and clear plans and policy positions.

First Tunisia, now Egypt, next Yemen? What is the plan, Mr. President?

Posted by: kr7355 | February 4, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

@glennkessler, I really think that is a somewhat narrow view of both Daley's statements and the critiques. It was uninformed, yes, but at the same time, it (as well as the annoyance that Hamas had even been mentioned) speaks to the fact that some in Washington actively believe that certain political groups should not be considered when discussing democratic reforms. And there is a difference between quietly meeting with a group, and going out of your way to invite them to a speech where you state you will respect democratically elected officials who are not necessarily the US's first choice.

The Obama administration, through the Cairo speech, made the assertion that even groups that are unfriendly to US interests should be considered and should be respected if they earn their place in a freely elected government. In other words, Obama was calling for change, i.e. democracy, while conservatives were saying he should have been calling for democracy* (where the asterisk is that it's not a democracy if the US doesn't pre-approve the politicians). Democracy* is no different from what US policy has been in the region for decades, while democracy where MB might be recognized as valid political players would truly be a change. He was calling for change in both the ME and in the US's dealings with the ME, in order to reassure people living their that their democratic elections would actually be respected. No, that reassurance didn't have much to do with why people are protesting, but to know that the US has your back, even if you won't necessarily have theirs in the future, is still a pretty big deal and possibly boosted the morale of a few activists in the region.

The other things in this post are spot on, but you can't really say that he received no criticism for being too bold about democratic reforms. Being open to the idea of ME democracy without US pre-approval is a pretty bold step away from previous administrations, and he was certainly criticized for that boldness.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 4, 2011 8:46 PM | Report abuse

To dkp01:

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Perhaps Daley's remarks (at least that sentence) are open to interpretation. I find it interesting the White House has not tried to defend them.

Posted by: glennkessler | February 5, 2011 8:47 AM | Report abuse

dkp01 wrote "Obama was calling for change, i.e. democracy, while conservatives were saying he should have been calling for democracy* (where the asterisk is that it's not a democracy if the US doesn't pre-approve the politicians)."

Is dkp01 accusing American conservatives of advocating for the rigging of elections in the Middle East to help ensure a particular result?

I imagine both George Bush and Barack Obama support free and open elections in the Middle East. If the process is fair, then the result is legitimate. The foreign policy challenge is how to respond to an adverse (from an American point of view) result of a fair election.

The Bush administration and the European Union expressed their displeasure with the election of Hamas by imposing trade and financial sanctions on the West Bank. Following the August 2010 re-election of Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, the Obama administration considered (1) holding another presidential election in which Karzai was to be disqualified from running (an option that is akin to Obama's demand that Hosni Mubarak not run in the next presidential election in Egypt); and (2) simply removing Karzai from office and appointing a successor (an option that is still on the table).

In short, one should avoid confusing the process with the result in an analysis of an administration’s policy in the run up and response to an election.

George Bush and Barack Obama do have different approaches to the making of foreign policy. Obama is afraid to make moral judgments, whereas Bush is not. It is true that culturally-based moral judgments tend to lead to cross-cultural misunderstandings, but that does not justify the misrepresentation of policy positions based on moral judgments with which one disagrees (Obama’s speeches in Berlin and Cairo were as much a recruitment of Germans and Egyptians in his attacks on GOP foreign policies as an outreach to Europe and the Middle East). And moral judgments notwithstanding, cross-cultural misunderstandings are possible if policymakers (which certainly includes Barack Obama) fail to recognize the limit of their understanding of daily life in other cultures.

In short, Barack Obama has no less a chance of making foreign policy mistakes as George Bush had. Regardless of political differences, Democrats as well as Republicans cannot avoid their own experiences and expectations that help shape a generally uninformed American view of the world.

Posted by: kr7355 | February 5, 2011 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I wrote "The Bush administration and the European Union expressed their displeasure with the election of Hamas by imposing trade and financial sanctions on the West Bank."

The sanctions were imposed on Gaza, not the West Bank. I stand corrected.

Posted by: kr7355 | February 8, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

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