Belmont Club

"Don't Tell Me Words Don't Matter"

Michael Totten at Instapundit asks whether Egypt is really the best place from which Barack Obama should address the Muslim world. Because Egypt is governed by an authoritarian regime, it may be a bad choice for symbolic reasons. J. Scott Carpenter at Middle East Strategy at Harvard implicity raises the same question, pointing out how tentative and lukewarm US support for democracy has been. In a piece called “Ditching Democracy in Egypt”, Carpenter writes about how democracy is in danger of becoming a “Bush word” at the State Department.  A “well-placed source at the State Department recently told me that in his bureau, they were no longer to use the words ‘freedom and democracy’ in speeches. ‘Those are Bush words,’ he was told. No. They are not. They are American words as Secretary Clinton herself makes clear.”

The Obama administration wanted to distance itself from the tone and perceived baggage of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda.” … The second and more important reason seems to be that this administration believes democracy and development are two entirely different things. When asked at her press availability yesterday about the democratic progress Egypt has made, Secretary Clinton avoided the question by talking instead about what the United States was doing and would do with development assistance in Egypt. … To take a step backwards now is a mistake, but the Obama administration is taking it. Already they have reversed the hard-fought agreement not to allow Egypt to veto democracy programs and have agreed that from now on all programs will be negotiated with the Egyptian government as part of the bilateral agreement. This sends exactly the wrong signal, and soon other governments in the region will be demanding the same sort of agreement.

I think the conceptual problem is slightly bigger than Carpenter describes. Implicit in Barack Obama’s engagement policy — which did not necessarily have to adopt this tone — is a kind of apologetic attitude towards the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East, as if to atone for confronting them in the past. Talking about democracy is no longer seen as effective. Development is now the operative term. One doesn’t ask about the prisoners in their dungeons any more, unless it is to inquire into whether the prisoners rendered there have cracked. Political entities like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Palestinian Authority are treated on the same rhetorical basis as Israel or Lebanon, one tone for all. Democracy comes off as just another political form of government which, in the best multicultural tradition, is neither better or worse than say any other; and while that message might not be the actual intent of President Obama, as the article points out, that is the message in danger of being conveyed.

Kevin Sullivan at Real Clear World writing on broadly the same subject says Obama is falling for the same “false choice” between our SOB’s and their SOB’s that plagued the Cold War. There is no Axis of Evil out there, just deals waiting to be made. Idealists who think there is still a place to promote Democracy in the world argue there are still practical ways to advance it. Sullivan makes a practical suggestion:

If Obama really wanted to make a statement to the so-called Muslim World, he could have chosen a place like Jakarta – a democratic and politically pluralistic country struggling with the difficult balancing act of religion and governance.

The fact that “political Islam” is mostly confined to the Middle East could be, one might argue, part of the problem. The United States has for decades made the false choice in the region between Islamic theocrats and quasi-secular autocrats. … So Cairo it is. But does the United States gain anything by prolonging the same false choice in the Middle East?


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