07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Difference Between Bush's "Freedom Agenda" and Obama's "Support for Human Rights"

Now that the dust has settled on President Obama's speech in Cairo it's possible to discern the outlines of the new administration's human rights and democracy promotion strategy. The proof of any such strategy naturally comes with results so we will have to wait a while for any assessment. Nonetheless, the differences with the Bush administration's approach were apparent in what President Obama said, and what he didn't say in Cairo.

Unlike President Bush, President Obama was careful not to explicitly align himself or U.S. policy either with people living under authoritarian governments in the Middle East or against those governments. Emphasizing binary divisions is not the president's way, and would certainly not have been in keeping with the overall tone of the speech, but I think there was clear policy intent behind his careful formulation of the issues. President Obama said that the United States supports fine ideals: human rights, the rule of law, women and minority rights, religious freedom. This is in contrast to the Bush position: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." Not only was the U.S. government with the people, it was explicitly against the inexcusable oppressive governments.

Some Egyptian democracy activists have expressed disappointment that Obama was not more outspoken in his criticism of their oppressors. I can understand their disappointment, and I remain concerned that it is damaging to the United States to be seen as the prime accomplice and facilitator of the region's autocratic rulers. Nonetheless, I can see some wisdom in the Obama approach, and I certainly do not view it as a sell-out.

The problem with the Bush approach was that in some countries, primarily close U.S. allies, it didn't really mean what it said, and in others, primarily U.S. adversaries, it had not thought through how to implement the policy in practice. It did great damage to the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. human rights promotion efforts in both circumstances.

In countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, undoubtedly repressive but close allies of the United States, the Bush administration either did not push for change, or, in the case of Egypt, backed off at the first sign of push-back from the regime. This produced a worst of all worlds outcome whereby the governments resented the Bush administration's harsh public rebukes making strategic cooperation in other vital areas more difficult, and the people still blamed the United States for the lack of human rights progress in their countries.

In countries not aligned with the United States the outcomes were different, but hardly better. Iraq is really a case apart, but the chaos and human suffering that followed the U.S. invasion has been seen as a massive black mark against the Bush administration's freedom promotion strategies to the extent that President Obama felt the need to acknowledge these difficulties as a preface to his remarks about democracy promotion in Cairo. In other countries like Iran or Syria, forthright condemnations of their oppressive governments by the Bush administration and support for government critics has not improved the situation, making the U.S. government look weak and providing regional autocrats the satisfaction of demonstrating the hollowness of President Bush's boast in his second inaugural address: "fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable." Well, not considerable enough, as it turned out.

President Obama's strength is that he does not need to engage in the abrasive and divisive rhetoric of the Bush administration to get the attention of the region's autocratic governments. He can speak directly to the people over the heads of the government, and they will listen to him. The Egyptian government knows that he is more popular than they are and therefore has some incentive to go along with what he wants in order to bask in the warm glow of his approbation and to benefit from continuing U.S. friendship and support.

This speak softly strategy may have a better chance of success than the previous administration's approach, especially since the big stick has shown itself to be a pretty useless tool for democracy and human rights promotion. Everything will of course depend on what the Obama administration does to show its support for human rights. Secretary of State Clinton has promised a "strategic dialogue" with Egypt on issues of mutual concern. Democracy and human rights must be treated as a distinct priority issue within that dialogue. If it is not, Egyptian human rights activists can expect more long years of frustration and disappointment.