The Source

The Source

This Thursday, when President Obama delivers a much-anticipated speech in Cairo, he will be addressing so many audiences, and seeking to advance so many agendas, that even his oratorical gifts are likely to be taxed. He will surely express his respect for Islam and the Islamic world, as he has before; articulate his broad policy goals in the Middle East; and offer proposals to increase the prospects, now quite dim, for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the president has chosen to deliver this speech in Cairo, and so he must also address the Egyptian people, who live — like the citizens of virtually all Arab countries — in an authoritarian state, and who have grown increasingly restive as President Hosni Mubarak has snuffed out flickering hopes for change.

What will President Obama say to them?

This is a question with an anguished history. Egypt was the central target of President Bush’s Freedom Agenda, his campaign to spread democracy worldwide. In July 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Cairo, where she startled, and thrilled, many in her audience by bluntly declaring that “for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.” And, she continued, “the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees.”

Mr. Mubarak initially responded by allowing an unprecedented degree of political freedom. But when an opposition Islamist party did well at the polls, Egypt’s security apparatus cracked down. The Bush administration, concerned about pushing a key ally too far, responded meekly. And that, arguably, marked the inglorious end of the Freedom Agenda.

President Obama’s words in Cairo are presumably being framed in the context of that episode. Should Mr. Bush have pushed harder for democratic reform in Egypt and with other allies? Should his administration have spoken more softly, less publicly? Should he, like his father, have devoted less attention to the way regimes treat their citizens, and more to winning cooperation on America’s national security objectives?

On this set of issues, as on so many others, President Obama has declined to come down on one side of an either-or choice. During the campaign, he spoke eloquently about democracy at home and abroad, and in an interview before taking office asserted that the promotion of democracy “needs to be at a central part of our foreign policy.” But he recoiled before the kind of missionary rhetoric that President Bush so often deployed; instead, he praised “realist” statesmen like Brent Scowcroft, and cautionary cold-war thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr.

As president, Mr. Obama has managed to use the language both of the realists, who typically address the behavior of regimes, and of idealists, who, at least since Woodrow Wilson’s time, have sought to speak directly to the aspirations of ordinary citizens.

Mr. Obama has tried to re-knit frayed ties by opening new lines of communication with Cuba and Iran, by soft-pedaling human-rights concerns in China, by remaining respectful toward Russia despite the occasional provocation. Just last week, he sought to harvest the fruits of his realpolitik by assembling a united front of states, very much including China and Russia, in the face of North Korea’s nuclear test.

But at the same time, President Obama has stirred listeners abroad with the clarion language of hope. In an April speech in Prague, he invoked the Prague Spring of 1968, when “the simple and principled pursuit of liberty and opportunity shamed those who relied on the power of tanks and arms to put down the will of a people.”

This duality has as much to do with geopolitical reality as with Mr. Obama’s own temperament. In a recent speech, David Miliband, Britain’s scholarly foreign minister, observed that, in the face of “threats from climate change, terrorism, pandemics and financial crisis,” global security can be guaranteed only by “the broadest possible coalition of states and political movements,” including undemocratic ones. At the same time, he added, “we need the consent of citizens.” Both objectives were realist ones, in the sense that they further common national interests. But they were inevitably, Mr. Miliband acknowledged, in tension with one another.

That tension is much more acute for President Obama than it might be for another statesman. America has played a central role in the establishment and guidance of global bodies, from the League of Nations to the Bretton Woods institutions. But Mr. Obama’s direct predecessor preferred ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” to standing institutions, and in any case did not agree with many of his allies on the substance of the threats. The nuclear nonproliferation regime is thus in tatters; climate change policy is in disarray. Mr. Obama, who believes that global institutions enhance rather than constrain American power, has a vast and urgent work of rebuilding before him. And he cannot, as Mr. Miliband observed, limit that effort to democratic allies. Without China, there can be no solution to climate change; without Russia, nonproliferation is a dead letter.

It may be the imperative of building a global order for the 21st century that accounts for the strikingly realist cast to the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign affairs. Both the president and his chief aides have steered clear of the language of democracy. In China in March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said bluntly that America’s concern about human rights “can’t interfere” with progress on the global economy, climate change and other issues. Egypt, too, occupies an important place in Mr. Obama’s strategic calculus, which aims to lay the groundwork for peace in the Middle East by shoring up “moderate” states while coaxing Iran and Syria into the fold.

The White House has accommodated President Mubarak by eliminating American funding for civil society organizations that the state refuses to recognize, and by stating publicly that neither military nor civilian funding will be conditioned on reform. This has provoked alarm from liberals, from scholarly experts and from activists in the region.

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?

At a symposium several weeks ago sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said he thought the Obama administration was struggling with the issue of democracy promotion, and had not yet found an answer with which it was comfortable. “My guess,” he said, “is that Obama wants to be forced to fight this out himself.”

The Source