President Obama came to office far more focused on showing the world that the Bush era was over than on any coherent strategy of his own for advancing human rights or democracy, writes Politico’s Michael Crowley:
But it didn’t seem that way at the time: Obama’s aides entered the White House full of plans for “dignity promotion”—a favorite phrase of Power’s meant to signal a contrast with Bush’s post-9/11 talk of “democracy promotion” and his second-term “Freedom Agenda” that many came to equate not with Bush’s lofty goal of “ending tyranny in our world” but with imposing Western values on countries like Iraq and Afghanistan at gunpoint.
The persistent problem of how to deal with American-allied strongmen has long tripped up a president who prefers pragmatic solutions to moral purity but has been unable to find much of either in the Middle East, Crowley adds:
While every U.S. president struggles to balance values like democracy and human rights with national security, Obama has struggled more than most because of the vast gap between his inspirational rhetoric and the compromises he has made with thuggish world leaders, especially—but by no means exclusively—in a Middle East where authoritarian heads of state from Riyadh to Cairo have cracked down with renewed vigor after the unsettling protests of the Arab Spring.
“The rhetoric got way ahead of the policymaking,” says Michael Posner, who served as Obama’s top State Department official for human rights and democracy in his first term. “It … raised expectations that everything was going to change.”
Adds Robert Ford, who was Obama’s ambassador to Syria before resigning in frustration over the president’s policy there: “It seems like we are swinging back to the idea that we must make a choice between supporting dictators or being safe.”