Fix it, Don't Nix it

07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the eve of President Obama's visit to Egypt, some have called for a reduction in U.S. government support for democracy promotion and a re-direction of foreign assistance to traditional development assistance targets like agriculture and health. Such critics are not wrong to observe that "clumsy democracy promotion often does little good and can even make matters worse," but they are mistaken to suggest that the U.S. government should reward the intransigence of the Mubarak regime by easing back on human rights and democracy promotion.

These same critics have short memories. A lack of progress on human rights and democracy in Egypt did not start with the Bush administration. It has been a feature of the 30 years of U.S. foreign policy since Camp David. Moreover, the Bush administration made its push for democracy in the Middle East at a time when U.S. policies in the region were at a low-ebb of popularity in the wake of the Iraq war, and a deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories, and when the U.S. had no credibility as a global leader on human rights given its own well-publicized human rights failings at Abu-Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Added to this heavy baggage, the Bush administration only really focused aggressively on promoting its Freedom Agenda for around two years between 2003 and 2005. After Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections provided a strong showing for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the January 2006 Palestinian Authority elections resulted in a narrow victory for Hamas the Bush administration's interest in democracy waned markedly. The spiraling crisis in Iraq demanded the full attention of the administration such that by early 2006 political support for the human rights and democracy promotion had evaporated and the administration was just going through the motions. In short, it would be unfair to judge human rights and democracy promotion programs by the atypical circumstances of the Bush administration.

The U.S. government cannot afford to continue to be seen as the power behind the thrones of the region's autocratic leaders. This perception is no less damaging to U.S. interests in the region than the other policy failures the Obama administration has set out to remedy. It is certainly more important than the desire to "reduce tensions" in the U.S. relationship with the Mubarak regime. The U.S.- Egyptian relationship is not such a delicate plant. It has strong roots of common strategic interests in many areas. The U.S. can certainly afford to speak out forthrightly on the need for democratic reform in Egypt and to promote policies designed to work towards it without risk of alienating its ally, especially since the Egyptian government has itself declared its intention to move in this direction.

The Obama administration has the opportunity to promote a new strategy for human rights promotion in Egypt that will make the Egyptian government a partner in human rights promotion efforts, and that situates U.S. human rights promotion efforts within the multilateral human rights framework by which Egypt is bound - an approach almost completely neglected by previous administrations, egregiously so by the Bush administration.

The bellicose, unilateral approach to democracy promotion in the region of the Bush administration, which critics found easy to ridicule by pointing to the chaos and carnage in Iraq as U.S. democracy promotion at work, did much to give the activity a bad name. Nonetheless, when asked, people in the region continue to express their support for more democracy and improved human rights conditions. By pursuing a sustained commitment to human rights and democracy promotion in Egypt, the Obama administration can begin to make progress where its predecessors have failed.