Barack Obama entered office last year promising a sweeping reinvention of America's image in the world, most of all in the Middle East, where George W. Bush saw his ambitious agenda of democratic transformation meet with the reality of a region deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and locked into stagnant authoritarian regimes.
As part of that reinvention, the Obama administration has changed the tone of U.S. interaction on the democracy front. Administration officials have espoused democratic principles in general -- as the president did in his eloquent June speech in Cairo, in which he pointedly criticized Arab regimes' lack of accountability to their people -- but shied away from direct confrontation. The question is whether this behind-the-scenes approach will be any more successful than Bush's in-your-face policy.
The first major test of the Obama administration's stance will come in the next few weeks when Egypt is likely to renew a 29-year-old emergency law that gives the government extraordinary powers to stifle political opposition. Egypt has been promising for years to replace the law -- imposed after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist terrorists -- with more limited counterterrorism legislation. But somehow the new law is never ready and the "emergency" endures.
If the past year is any guide, the U.S. State Department will express disappointment, but neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will publicly criticize the government of President Hosni Mubarak -- the sort of high-level rebuke of which global headlines are made.
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Under the Obama administration, democracy promotion in the Middle East is clearly not a major regional priority. Clinton made that plain in a speech Feb. 14 in Qatar, in which she listed promoting human rights fifth and last following the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, combating violent extremism, and promoting opportunities for young people.
In the administration's defense, it took office at a time when the muscular Bush model of democracy promotion had been largely discredited and abandoned. The 2003 Iraq invasion at first spooked other Arab regimes into reforms -- and then convinced them to retreat as Iraq descended into sectarian warfare. Elections in Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon strengthened IslamistU. groups at the expense of secular parties. The biggest setback came in 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections that were held at the insistence of then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.