Saturday, January 29, 2011

Obama and Egypt

From Al Jazeera (yes, Al Jazeera):
President Obama, say the ‘D-Word’

It’s incredible, really. The president of the United States can’t bring himself to talk about democracy in the Middle East. He can dance around it, use euphemisms, throw out words like “freedom” and “tolerance” and “non-violent” and especially “reform,” but he can’t say the one word that really matters: democracy.

How did this happen? After all, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama spoke the word loudly and clearly - at least once.

“The fourth issue that I will address is democracy,” he declared, before explaining that while the United States won’t impose its own system, it was committed to governments that “reflect the will of the 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. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

“No matter where it takes hold,” the president concluded, “government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power.”

Simply rhetoric?

Of course, this was just rhetoric, however lofty, reflecting a moment when no one was rebelling against the undemocratic governments of our allies - at least not openly and in a manner that demanded international media coverage.

Now it’s for real.

And “democracy” is scarcely to be heard on the lips of the president or his most senior officials.

In fact, newly released WikiLeaks cables show that from the moment it assumed power, the Obama administration specifically toned down public criticism of Mubarak. The US ambassador to Egypt advised secretary of state Hillary Clinton to avoid even the mention of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, jailed and abused for years after running against Mubarak in part on America’s encouragement.

Not surprisingly, when the protests began, Clinton declared that Egypt was “stable” and an important US ally, sending a strong signal that the US would not support the protesters if they tried to topple the regime. Indeed, Clinton has repeatedly described Mubarak as a family friend. Perhaps Ms Clinton should choose her friends more wisely.

Similarly, president Obama has refused to take a strong stand in support of the burgeoning pro-democracy movement and has been no more discriminating in his public characterisation of American support for its Egyptian “ally.” Mubarak continued through yesterday to be praised as a crucial partner of the US. Most important, there has been absolutely no call for real democracy.

Rather, only “reform” has been suggested to the Egyptian government so that, in Obama’s words, “people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances.”

“I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform - political reform, economic reform - is absolutely critical for the long-term well-being of Egypt,” advised the president, although vice-president Joe Biden has refused to refer to Mubarak as a dictator, leading one to wonder how bad a leader must be to deserve the title.
We don’t agree with all of the article (feel free to read the rest here), but the writer (a professor of history at University of California, Irvine) has a point.

It is important to avoid cheap-shot criticism of Obama. Like every American president he has to balance human rights against American interests. And indeed, American interests are often consistent with the interests of the world (in not wanting radical Islamic regimes, for example).

Further, no US president, including those like Carter and George W. Bush who have rhetorically supported democracy, has anything close to a pristine record of supporting democracy.

But Obama promised “hope and change.” Obama went around the world apologizing for America’s supposed faults.

But now it appears that he’s no visionary. And not only is he no visionary, he’s less the visionary than was George W. Bush.

The fact that he doesn’s believe in American exceptionalism may be a large factor here. Whatever he may say about “democracy” and “human rights,” he simply has trouble believing that the American way is better, and that America’s enemies are usually bad people.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous scott said...

The criticism goes a step too far. Just yesterday the president said:

"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech. And I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."

Emphasis mine.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Dad29 said...

“The fourth issue that I will address is democracy,” he declared, before explaining that while the United States won’t impose its own system, it was committed to governments that “reflect the will of the 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. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Sorta like ObamaCare and Porkulus 'reflect the will of the people'??

11:05 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

The criticism goes a step too far.

We'll see how Obama performs.

But it's already clear that he's been behind, trailing events, rather than ahead of the curve.

7:43 PM  

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