Democracy repackaged

Rejig to Bushs policies

More than four years after his predecessor declared it America’s mission to end tyranny around the world, President Barack Obama is trying to reformulate a lofty goal that has become tarnished in many circles.

Obama used his address in Cairo, Egypt, last week to revive but recast the democracy agenda that was central to President George W Bush’s foreign policy. Yet even as he embraced the aspiration rhetorically, Obama left it uncertain how aggressively he planned to push repressive regimes that did not agree.

The president’s focus on democracy -- one of seven tenets of the speech -- was his most expansive discussion of the issue since taking office. The decision to address it directly culminated a four-month struggle within the administration between those who want nothing to do with what they consider Bush’s discredited ideological crusade and those who argue America should still promote freedom, just in a humbler manner.

“I think that sends a signal to people in his administration who have been moving in a steady neorealist direction that he doesn't want to abandon this,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an advocacy organisation. “I know the battles were quite intense inside to even get it in there.”

But the debate is probably not over. “I don’t think this yet settles the question of how they are going to distance themselves from Bush, but still reclaim the tradition of American democracy promotion,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Bush put democracy at the centre of American foreign policy in his second inaugural address, in 2005, vowing to challenge ‘every ruler and every nation’ to guarantee freedom. But his fervour, his inconsistent application and the war in Iraq left many soured or suspicious. After Obama took office, 163 democracy advocates wrote a letter urging him to pick up the mantle while avoiding his predecessor's mistakes.

In the Cairo speech, Obama implicitly contrasted his vision of democracy promotion with Bush’s by saying it cannot ‘be imposed by one nation,’ and by making clear that elections are not enough. He said America ‘would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election,’ and would respect winners it disagreed with as long as they were peaceful and governed with respect for all of their people.

“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,” the president said. “These are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Obama got applause the moment he used the word ‘democracy’ and three more times during this section of his speech. When he finished this passage, someone in the crowd shouted, “Barack Obama, we love you!”

Yet Obama kept his words general and did nothing to challenge his Egyptian host, President Hosni Mubarak, whose government has jailed opponents, censored the news media and broken up protests. Indeed, the Obama administration, while increasing financing for democracy programs elsewhere, recently cut it for Egypt, and in an interview before leaving Washington, the president said he did not consider Mubarak an authoritarian.

For advocates like Larry Diamond, the gentle treatment of Mubarak undermined a strong speech. “I would have wished that he would have at some point in his visit to Egypt been a bit more explicit in raising concerns about what is a very hard authoritarian regime,” said Diamond.

Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “I thought he did the bare minimum. Obviously he and his advisers knew that if he didn't mention democracy at all, that would be a news item. But he said very little that would cause Mubarak, or any other autocrat around the world, much if any heartburn.”

More supportive

Elliott Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, was more supportive, noting that Obama backed the expansion of freedom and made the case that free governments were more secure and successful. But he questioned whether Obama would back up the words with actions.

“The problem is that the democracy and human rights offices in his government have fallen into disrepair, especially in the NSC,” said Abrams. The uncertainty about how Obama will proceed was highlighted by the response of Human Rights Watch to his speech. At first, it issued a statement condemning the speech under the headline, “Obama Dodged Rights Issue.” Less than an hour later it retracted the statement. Finally it issued a new one titled, “Obama Mid-East Speech supports rights, democracy.”
Malinowski said he did not see the first version before it went out, and when he did, found it ‘unfair.’ So he said he decided to swallow the embarrassment of retracting it and issued a new one to reflect ‘important and positive things’ in the speech.

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