President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week has been widely interpreted as a welcome if cautious reaffirmation that promoting democracy remains on his foreign policy agenda, not least in the Middle East.
The United States “will be a partner in working with those who are working on the front lines” in pursuit of democracy and human rights “that are really at the core of self-expression and personal freedom and potential”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed yesterday, addressing a delegation of Arab democracy activists.
Obama’s “speak softly strategy may have a better chance of success than the previous administration’s approach,” writes Neil Hicks of Human Rights First, “especially since the big stick has shown itself to be a pretty useless tool for democracy and human rights promotion.”
But Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, insists that the region’s “democracy activists and opposition movements — liberal and religious alike — especially in Egypt, were alienated by Obama’s speech, which they decried as an endorsement of Arab autocracy.”
Reactions to the speech in the Arab world varied widely, from the welcoming to the nakedly hostile. “These reactions and responses demonstrate dramatic differences among Arab governments and political factions,” Hamzawy suggests.
While some observers believe the Cairo speech is a positive indication that promoting democracy is no longer a toxic concept in Obama’s foreign policy circles, others suggests the debates will continue. “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, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
“The reason there are no successful Arab democracies today is because there is no successful Arab democracy today,” says Larry Diamond, the author of “The Spirit of Democracy.” “When there is no model, it is hard for an idea to diffuse in a region.”
But Thomas Friedman insists that there is- at least potentially – already such a model straddling the Tigris and Euphrates. For all the tragic mistakes and losses, he suggests, the huge financial, material and human investment in Iraq’s flawed and fragile democracy could yet pay off:
You demonstrate that Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can write their own social contract, and you will tell the whole Arab world that there is a model other than top-down monologues from iron-fisted dictators.