May 13, 2009
Admittedly, in the Middle East, the United States did derive some strategic benefit from its years of uncritical partnership with autocratic regimes, including access to oil and cooperation against Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But a realist would also have to acknowledge that it suffered strategic costs, as al Qaeda and other violent groups exploited America's closeness to dictators to build support for their cause, and authoritarian governments stifled moderate opposition movements that could have competed with extremists.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

In two weeks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will make his first visit to the White House since 2004. Egypt is, of course, a key U.S. ally and the United States badly needs its help as President Barack Obama attempts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Mubarak is not exactly a model guest. He epitomizes the authoritarian Arab ruler, presiding over a system in which opponents are muzzled and imprisoned, and where torture is widespread. Yes, Mubarak greeted Obama's inauguration by releasing Egypt's most famous political prisoner -- opposition politician Ayman Nour. But he has shown no inclination to pursue broader reforms, and seems intent on installing his son as his successor. And he keeps dubious company, having flagrantly challenged one of the Obama administration's priorities by inviting President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to Cairo after his indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Mubarak reportedly refused to visit Washington during George W. Bush's second term because of that administration's occasional criticism of his repressive policies. How the Obama administration receives him will tell us a great deal about the importance it attaches to promoting human rights and democracy in the Middle East -- as will Obama's own trip to Egypt in June, where he will deliver his long-awaited address to the Muslim world. Having begun to restore America's moral authority, how will Obama choose to use it in Egypt and beyond?

No doubt, the administration wants to distance itself from the messianic approach of Bush, who pledged to spread freedom and "end tyranny in our time," only to see his rhetoric discredited by the war in Iraq and the shame of torture and Guantánamo. Obama has been right to focus on regaining the moral high ground.

In early 2004, I accompanied the distinguished Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim to the Pentagon to see Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of Bush's "freedom agenda" in the Middle East. Ibrahim expressed genuine gratitude for Bush's commitment to human rights and democracy in the Muslim world, but then pointedly said that the prison camp in Guantánamo was doing immeasurable damage to that cause. Wolfowitz almost walked out the room. He could not abide being told by a hero of the global democracy movement that his administration was giving the very idea of American democracy promotion a bad name.

But there was another side to the story of Bush, democracy, and the Middle East. In those years, Egyptian activists who came to my office at Human Rights Watch would tell me how Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib made them want to distance themselves from America. But then, very often, they would still ask, "Who can we speak to at the State Department to get more American support for our work in Egypt?" As much as they loathed Bush, they knew that his early efforts to press Mubarak (before they slacked after 2005) had begun to make a difference. Some political prisoners had been released. An opposition candidate was allowed to run for president. Civil society felt it had more room to breathe.

Their eventual disappointment was the flip side of hope that a different kind of America might yet emerge. And now those same activists -- and millions of ordinary people in Egypt and across the Middle East who want to live in more open and just societies -- expect more from a U.S. president who is not saddled with the moral baggage of his predecessor and seems so attuned, by virtue of his background and expressed ideals, to their daily struggles.

Yet many who have observed Obama's early days have started to doubt if he will vigorously pursue a human rights agenda with critical U.S. allies like Egypt. Obama is preoccupied with the global financial crisis. He needs leaders like Mubarak to pursue other vital goals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comment en route to China that promoting human rights "can't interfere" with the pursuit of security and economic goals, and her unqualified praise of Mubarak when asked about human rights issues during her last trip to Egypt, also gave human rights activists pause.

For all his soaring rhetoric, Obama is a realist. He is suspicious of grand schemes to remake the world or of policies driven by moral mission; he will need to be convinced that pressing stubborn allies to respect human rights will advance U.S. interests -- that it is the smart thing to do, not just something that makes Americans feel good. Fortunately, the sober case for promoting human rights is easy to make. Realism argues for reclaiming this tradition, not rejecting it.

Admittedly, in the Middle East, the United States did derive some strategic benefit from its years of uncritical partnership with autocratic regimes, including access to oil and cooperation against Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But a realist would also have to acknowledge that it suffered strategic costs, as al Qaeda and other violent groups exploited America's closeness to dictators to build support for their cause, and authoritarian governments stifled moderate opposition movements that could have competed with extremists. In fact, leaders like Mubarak actually gave more space to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood than to more secular-minded democratic activists, to create the illusion that that the only alternative to their rule was an Islamist takeover. When it bought that lie, the United States reaped not just popular resentment but a rising security threat.

Pakistan, where the new administration faces its greatest security challenge, is another case in point. President Bush exempted Pakistan's dictator Pervez Musharraf from the "freedom agenda" because, as Bush memorably put it, Musharraf was "tight with us in the war against terror and that's what I appreciate." In fact, Musharraf's army protected militants, while focusing most of its repressive power on the moderate opposition leaders and groups that posed the greatest threat to his rule. Bush's support for Musharraf was hardly pragmatic; it allowed the Taliban to consolidate a safe area in Pakistan's tribal belt and alienated the very segments of Pakistani society most likely to support an effective campaign against extremists.

Today, a truly pragmatic administration would say: If we want to bring stability to Pakistan's tribal belt, then realistically, we will have to push Pakistan to introduce fair and functioning courts into the region, so the Taliban can't fill the legal vacuum. We will have to focus not just on whether Pakistan fights extremists, but on how it fights, insisting on a campaign that spares civilian lives and builds institutions people will trust.

Likewise, if Obama wants to bring peace to the Middle East, then realistically, he will have to address Israeli (and Palestinian Authority) practices that undermine Palestinian support for negotiations. If he wants China to contribute to environmental progress, then realistically, he will have to push its rulers to let a free press criticize its environmental abuses. If he wants a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, then realistically, he will need to appeal to ordinary Iranians who want greater freedom and links to the outside world, so that the government will have less support from within to counter pressure from without.

And, if the great promise of the Obama presidency lies in his ability to connect with people who have lost faith in America, then realistically, he will need to talk about more than building schools and creating jobs. He will need to address the sense of injustice and indignity caused by dysfunctional and oppressive governments, and often -- as in the case of Egypt -- by the sense that America has too often been on the side of the oppressors.
During his campaign, Obama suggested that he understands this. Asked in one of the early debates if human rights were "more important than America's national security," he answered: "The concepts are not contradictory; they are complementary." He continued "The more we see repression, the more there are no outlets for how people can express themselves and their aspirations, the worse off we're going to be and the more anti-American sentiment there is going to be in the Middle East."

This doesn't mean Obama shouldn't talk to Mubarak, or travel to Egypt to give his speech. On the contrary, both events are opportunities to take his message directly to Mubarak as well as the Egyptian people. It doesn't mean he should preach from a position of moral superiority; on the contrary, acknowledging America's mistakes will make his message more powerful (ironically, Bush's misdeeds make it easier for Obama to use this effective device).
It simply means that he should speak candidly about the human rights and democracy deficit in the Middle East to allies and adversaries alike, and use the same levers of influence to promote this goal as he would any other core national interest. As he engages the heart of the region, he should address the heart of the matter.