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.