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Does Obama Have His Own Freedom Agenda Or Not?

Democracy promotion after Bush.

Barack Obama's administration is extremely touchy about claims that its "engagement" policy amounts to old-fashioned "realism," with America offering autocratic allies a free pass on human rights and democracy promotion in exchange for cooperation on the big geostrategic issues. We have, after all, seen the alternative: All the blood and thunder that accompanied George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda produced very little actual freedom (or progress on geostrategic issues for that matter).

As one Senior Official -- as I was instructed to identify him -- said to me in a background conversation last week, "If we were to not engage regimes with authoritarian tendencies, to lecture them from Washington, they would suddenly therefore decide to become democracies and accede to our demands?"

When I said that sounded like a parody of the argument of democracy advocates, this official shot back, "I think the administration has unfairly been subjected to a parody the other way around."

So lay off, you barking dogs of liberal internationalism.

Has the administration, in fact, found its own path to democracy promotion? Is it possible the Obama mantra of "engagement" has facilitated, rather than precluded, this fundamental preoccupation of American policy, which began not with George W. Bush, but Woodrow Wilson? Certainly, President Obama's administration includes in its senior ranks a number of leading advocates for democracy promotion, including Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. His new book, Advancing Democracy Abroad, argues convincingly that adding to the world's tally of democracies is in the American interest; is achievable as policy, albeit with patience and modesty; and should be a central concern of the administration he has since joined. So they've got the horses.

The democracy-promotion community generally regarded the Freedom Agenda as a missed opportunity -- a clumsy and often calamitous attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East (likewise Your Columnist, in his 2008 book The Freedom Agenda). A number of those critics now think that Obama has begun to restore democracy promotion's good name. Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, told me, "There's been this drumbeat that there's been an abandonment, but I don't think that's the case." Wollack notes that though at first Obama seemed reluctant even to utter any of the words Bush had rendered toxic, "the terms 'democracy,' 'freedom,' 'universal values' have become part and parcel of the presidential lexicon." Wollack also points to the steep increase in the budget of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) -- from $874 million to $1.4 billion -- as well as concerted efforts to shore up troubled democracies in Africa.

The MCC, arguably Bush's sole lastingly positive contribution to the conduct of foreign affairs, provides aid to decently governed states and thus serves as a reminder of the unglamorous business of fortifying weak democracies -- as opposed to the melodramatic one of issuing ringing calls for change in authoritarian states. Obama and those around him are plainly more comfortable with the former than the latter. Administration officials point to the linkage they have promoted -- in forums like the G-20 -- between development and good governance and their overall focus on capacity building, especially in Africa.

There's a real argument that this should be the central business of democracy promotion. "This has not been the focus of past administrations," as Senior Official #2 put it. "But if we fail to focus attention on those places where we actually have committed and dedicated leadership, then we are going to be in the situation we were in before, with a set of hard cases, and then a set of failed democratic transitions on top of that."

Insofar, then, as democracy promotion involves making complicated, long-term policy choices under more or less consensual conditions, the Obama administration has both the intellectual wherewithal and the will to do the right thing. (It's not yet clear whether Congress will authorize the necessary funds.)

But what happens when you're pushing autocrats rather than coaxing democrats? Administration officials insist that engagement can reduce the friction in such relationships. Russia, for example, has been willing to host a delegation of leading American CEOs to talk about Internet freedom. Would that have occurred in the more hostile environment of 2008?

Nevertheless, engagement contains its own contradictions. Although it's true that the threat of disengagement is unlikely to produce political reform, it's also true that a show of deference to authoritarian states, no matter what its avowed purpose, is likely to be heard as a message of impunity. The most vivid proof is Egypt, where the contrast between Bush and Obama is most striking. After declaring, in his second inaugural address, that the United States would henceforth require from other governments "the decent treatment of their own people," Bush used Egypt as an object lesson, publicly pressuring President Hosni Mubarak to expand the space for political campaigning and public commentary. And it worked -- until Mubarak cracked down and the Bush administration responded with mild bleats.

Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, says that Obama "learned the wrong lesson" from the Bush episode. The lesson was not that public pressure doesn't work, but rather that such pressure must be measured and consistent and backed up by deeds. Neither Obama nor other senior officials have publicly criticized authoritarian allies in the Middle East (though one hears a great deal about things allegedly said in private). Hamid says that Obama's Cairo speech was almost "pitch perfect," but that the lack of follow-up has provoked a "visceral" sense of disappointment among local reformers.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the Cairo initiative would include three areas of engagement: entrepreneurship, science and technology, and education. There would be nothing that would even faintly discomfit the region's autocratic leaders. Perhaps there will be more to come. When I ticked off this list to one administration official, he said grimly, "That drama's not over."

That's interesting to hear. Officials, up to and including Obama, seem not yet to have decided how far, and by what means, they can push key autocratic states to uphold and advance the global order. The Bush administration, for all its splendid words, barely nudged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who declared himself an ally in the war on terror. Clinton, likewise, is still living down her assurances that quarrels over human rights wouldn't get in the way of full-fledged engagement with China. That seems like a defensible calculation -- until you consider how little real cooperation Bush got from Pakistan, or Obama has from China. As one State Department official recently told me, China seems to have misread deference as the posturings of a desperate suitor.

No president in U.S. history has understood as this one does what it feels like to be on the receiving end of American power. Obama knows better than to hector. He wants to inspire, not impose. That's a fine thing, and a necessary correction to the bender of self-righteousness the United States has been on.

But you have to wonder if eight years of reckless disregard for the limits of American power has instilled in this administration a slightly excessive awareness of those limits. They are still, it's clear, trying to figure out how far to push the envelope. The answer I would suggest is: a little further.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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