In late 2009, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama argued that the the choice between foreign policy realism and foreign policy idealism was a false one, calling it “a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.” In his view, the idealistic vision of a more democratic world, with better respect for human rights, was also a realistic one. “I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear,” he said. “Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence.”
The events in Egypt over the last several weeks have sorely tested Obama’s optimistic formulation. Initially, the uprising in Egypt demonstrated in stark terms Obama’s own reluctance to pursue the bold course that he seemed to lay out in his Nobel speech. While it was true that Obama had rhetorically supported greater freedoms in Egypt and Arab world, there was little evidence that he had made this a priority. The White House dealt with the rigged Egyptian elections of last November by writing stern, measured press releases expressing disappointment. Just months earlier, the Obama Administration had slashed U.S. aide to democracy groups in Egypt by about 50 percent. As one Cairo-based election monitor put it at the time, “Obama wants change that won’t make the Egyptian government angry.”
The initial White House reaction to the tumult confirmed this sense that Obama was charting a more traditionally realist course. He declined to mention Egypt explicitly in the State of the Union, choosing to use more bland language about democracy promotion. Secretary of State called the Egyptian government “stable.” Vice President Joe Biden declined to describe Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a dictator.
In the days that followed, White House aides have appeared torn between its desire to appear to be promoting democracy and their concerns that the tumult on the streets of Egypt, if not properly managed, could severely damage U.S. interests in the region. The choice that Obama had once rejected, between realism and idealism, seemed ever-present. And more often than not, Obama was choosing the realist course.
Even as the Obama administration has publicly appeared to be pushing Mubarak to the exit, there are clear signs that the White House continues to support a transition lead by Mubarak’s chosen deputy, Omar Suleiman, the newly appointed Egyptian vice president and a long time U.S. partner, who spoke on Egyptian television last week critical of foreign journalists, even as government forces detained reporters and human rights workers. “We have to send a consistent message supporting the orderly transition that has begun,” Clinton said Saturday, apparently endorsing the Suleiman process. On Monday, the New York Times reported that opposition groups, who had met with Suleiman, rejected the Vice President’s claim of consensus as a political ploy. There remain significant signals of distrust over Suleiman’s ability to run a meaningful transition that will lead to free and fair elections later this year.
Through the 2008 campaign, much was made of President Obama’s ability to describe himself outside the historical categories that have long defined political leaders. It was, in no small part, a major reason he won the presidency. But his attempts to do this on a world stage have run headlong into the complex realities of global democracy. In practice, it is difficult to distinguish Obama’s cautious approach from that of his predecessors, who have been forced to compromise the idealistic vision the United States advertises with its pragmatic interests. Though Obama has attempted to transcend these historical trade-offs, he has not yet been able to escaped them.