President Obama speaks during a news conference in Washington with Canadian… (EPA / Michael Reynolds )
Reporting from Washington — Although President Obama has sided firmly with pro-democracy protesters in Egypt, his administration spent its first two years easing the U.S. push for human rights reforms in that country.
Early in Obama's presidency, officials cut in half funding to promote democracy in Egypt. They also agreed to restrict certain grants only to organizations licensed by President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, reversing a Bush administration policy of funding groups at odds with the government.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a March 2009 meeting with Mubarak at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, seemed to downplay a State Department report documenting torture, rape and political detentions in Egypt.
"We issue these reports on every country," Clinton told a television interviewer. "And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement."
Egyptian dissidents were distressed by the administration's message.
"All this sent a signal that was very damaging," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington advocacy group.
With Egypt's popular uprising now well into its second week, human rights activists credit the Obama administration for having come full circle.
"They've clearly bet the farm on democratic change," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.
But with the Egyptian regime teetering, some analysts say the United States finds itself with less influence than it might have had. Under the Obama administration, American diplomats have met more with figures from officially sanctioned opposition parties than with dissidents, McInerney said.
"I think they would have been caught less flat-footed if they had elevated a lot of the discussions that they seem to be having now," said Scott Carpenter, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Middle East policy during the Bush administration.
Obama spoke in general terms about political rights in his seminal address to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, but did not explicitly demand reform in Egypt, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did in 2005. Rice's remarks reflected then-President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East, which involved stepped-up pressure for democratic reforms.
The Bush administration pressured Mubarak into holding elections in 2005 that though flawed, were the fairest in the country's history, analysts say. But harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, secret CIA prisons and the Iraq war tainted the Bush approach. And after Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, Bush's ardor for Arab democracy cooled.
Obama pulled back further. In doing so, he reverted to what U.S. policy toward Egypt had been for decades.
During those years, the United States backed Mubarak even as he harassed, arrested and jailed political opponents.
The U.S. supported Mubarak for the same reasons it has funded and abetted other authoritarian allies in the Middle East — in the name of regional stability. After the Sept. 11 attacks, stability also included thwarting Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.
Successive American administrations paid lip service to human rights issues while underwriting half of Egypt's military budget and most of its intelligence service, which works closely with the CIA. And it wasn't only the White House: Just last fall, the Senate quashed a resolution calling for freedom and democracy in Egypt.
"We have an addiction to dictators," said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress who was among those advising White House officials on Egypt last week. "We know that it's bad for us, but because this is the way we've done business for so long, we don't know any other way."
The question of how hard to push authoritarian allies on human rights is an age-old U.S. foreign policy debate. Officials and some analysts disagree that the Obama administration should have publicly and aggressively called for political reform in Egypt.
The U.S. relationship with the Egyptian strongman yielded an unbroken peace deal with Israel and a concerted effort by Mubarak against terrorism. The Obama administration came into office seeking to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"Looking at Egypt through a single lens distorts the broader picture," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in an e-mail comment. "No one should diminish the importance of Egypt's commitment to peace in the Middle East. This has benefited the United States and the region as a whole."
The reason the U.S. is in a position now to publicly demand reform is because the Egyptian people are in the streets screaming for it, some foreign policy analysts argue.
"We have to deal with the government that exists, not the government that we want to exist," said Paul Saunders, a former State Department official in the Bush administration who now heads the Nixon Center. "You can't simultaneously ask a government for sensitive and politically difficult assistance and then publicly challenge their right to rule."
Even within the State Department, there has long been tension between those who work on human rights and those who deal directly with allied governments, former senior diplomat Thomas Pickering said. Security and other interests usually prevailed, but events in Cairo have reinvigorated the push for more democracy.
Washington's message to Middle East autocrats should be: "You are our friends, we don't want you to go through what Hosni Mubarak just went through," Malinowski said. "And the way to avoid that is not to crack down harder, but to begin a process of reform."