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June 03, 2009

Obama's Democracy Deficit - and How to Fix It
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at World Politics Review, Brian Katulis and I take a look at Obama's upcoming Cairo speech and offer some thoughts on what the President needs to say - and how we can put democracy promotion back on the US foreign policy map:

President Barack Obama's historic address to the Muslim world in Cairo tomorrow offers a prime opportunity to outline a new U.S. vision for democracy and human rights in the region. To accomplish this goal, Obama must firmly reject the notion that safeguarding America's strategic interests in the Middle East somehow runs counter to the goal of advancing political reform. Instead he must craft a balanced message that recognizes that reform is synonymous with U.S. interests in the region.

Unfortunately, if early signs are any indication, the president seems to be striking the wrong balance. The delayed appointments of key democracy promotion and human rights officials -- including the administrator for the Agency of International Development and the assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor -- suggest that the issue is simply not a high priority.

Policy statements and decisions by top officials are sending a more disturbing signal. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that China's adherence to global human rights standards, or lack thereof, can't interfere with larger economic and security concerns. The administration has even acceded to Egyptian demands that economic assistance not be used to support civil society groups and has slashed funds for democracy promotion by 60 percent. The Obama administration seems to be falling into the same trap that has plagued U.S. foreign policy for decades: placing short-term strategic concerns above the long-term imperative to press for reform.

 . . . it is not enough to engage with the region's often unaccountable and autocratic leaders. Obama must also reach out to those advocating for change. The right words from a new American president can have a powerful impact on the cause of political reform in the Middle East.

Read the whole thing here:


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Good lord, Michael! I really hope Obama doesn't take the advice of you and Brian Katulis and spend a lot of time articulating another US "vision" for the region. The last thing Middle Easterners need or are disposed to receive right now from the United States are more grand prophecies of liberation from American saviors bearing visions from across the ocean.

Obama surely wants to avoid setting himself up as another would-be heir of Napoleon, apostle of a new civilizing mission from the West. Nor does he want to suggest he is in the Middle East to begin some new visionary Marshall Plan makeover of the region, a makeover that the people of the region have not requested, and the offer of which could only be viewed as a humiliating gesture of haughty condescension and presumptive victory on the battlefield.

Obama goes to Cairo as the leader of a powerful but extremely unpopular foreign nation that currently has unwelcome armies fighting in two Middle Eastern countries and is the chief backer of the most reviled state in the region, a state that has just carried out a devastating assault on an oppressed Muslim people, and is even now working to keep those people cut off from the outside world. These realities are still fresh in the minds of the people of the Middle East, even if Americans have done their typical forgetting act and think they have moved on. Obama speaks against a fraught, raw background of pain and conflict, and mutual resentment and suspicion. Obama's chief message needs to be something like, "How can we find a way forward and out of this bloody mess, and a path to more normal and friendlier relations?" He can then describe broad changes in US policies that he hopes will be seen as gestures of reaching halfway, along with his hopes and expectations for reciprocal responses in the Middle East, both from its governments and its people. The keynote theme should intercultural dialogue not American visions. My expectation is that he is at least going to call for dramatic increases in cultural exchanges as a way of laying a durable long-term foundation for a better relationship.

What world are you and Brian living in?

Defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan: hopeless. Having a "powerful impact" on the cause of democracy in the Arab Middle East: all it takes is the right words from an American President.

No limitations for America there.

There was some talk in the speech on the the general goodness of democratic traditions of free speech, the rule of law, respect for minority rights and popular participation in governance; and Obama said the US will welcome democratic governments and work with them. But thankfully, there was no outline of an ambitious Washington "agenda" or "vision" for governance in the Middle East.

Rather than a call for a prescriptive DC-lead program of institutional government reform, the emphasis was more on the the insistence that all nations, whatever their system of government, should protect rights - particularly the rights of women and religious majorities, and promote development and opportunity for all their people.

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The administration has even acceded to Egyptian demands that economic assistance not be used to support civil society groups and has slashed funds for democracy promotion by 60 percent

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