CAIRO-- When it comes to pushing democracy in Mubarak's Egypt, Obama tells NPR:

In every country I deal with, whether it's China, Russia, ultimately Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, allies as well as non-allies, there are going to be some differences.  And what I want to do is just maintain consistency in affirming what those values that I believe in are, understanding that we're not going to get countries to embrace various of our values simply by lecturing or through military means.  We can't force these approaches.  What we can do is stand up for human rights; we can stand up for democracy.  But I think it's a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we're not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy. [emphasis added]

This is a bit incoherent: We can't lecture countries about our values, but we can "stand up" for democracy and human rights? I'm not sure where the difference lies. Certainly when it comes to China we seem to be doing neither, and the approach to Egypt isn't looking so different. It's true that haughty public lectures abroad can backfire. But despite Obama's false choice between overbearing pressure (including military force) and refusing to deal with autocratic regimes, there is another option: conditioning some of the $1.5 billion in foreign aid Washington sends to Egypt to democratic and human rights reform.

Obama, however, has declined to condition aid on democratic reforms. More than that, he's cut U.S. foreign aid for democracy promotion in Egypt by more than half. And, in a policy shift, that money will now flow through the Egyptian government rather than going directly to independent groups, which doesn't bode well for its enlightened use.

To be sure, there's a robust debate here about whether pro-democracy American gets squandered (or stolen), and some argue that smartly targeted economic aid is the best approach. With the US working to boost trade with Egypt, Obama may be adopting a more nuanced approach--one that bets on the free market to bring reform in  places where stern speeches and strings-attached aid have failed. That philosophy was a foundation of American foreign policy in the 1990s, and in that sense Obama may not just be repudiating George Bush's vision--but embracing Bill Clinton's.  

[Photo of 2005 Cairo democracy protest via Baheyya]

--Michael Crowley

The Mubarak Rumor Mill, by Michael Crowley (6/3/09)

Rumor of the Day: Mubarak's Health, by Michael Crowley (6/2/09)

Muslim Brothers Make the Obama Cut, by Michael Crowley (6/2/09)

Obamania in Cairo, by Michael Crowley (6/1/09)

Report: Obama to Speak at Cairo University, by Michael Crowley (5/26/09)