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Less "Engagement," More Democracy

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 22, 2011
New York Times


The revolt in Tunisia has thrown both that nation's dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the Obama administration's democracy-promotion policy onto the ash heap of history. The revolt undermined--indeed, destroyed--two years of effort in Washington to move toward a policy of “engagement” with hostile and repressive regimes.

The price for this policy has been paid by men and women from China to Russia to Iran to Egypt to Venezuela, who had expected a louder voice and a firmer helping hand from the United States. Now, watching the Tunisians try to move from a rapacious dictatorship to a stable democratic system, the president should say that in Tunisia, and everywhere else, we will side with those working to build democracies.

The president needn't admit error--he can stick with the old “engagement” trope--but he must shift his focus from sclerotic regimes to movements, parties and brave people seeking political freedom. Mr. Obama should give an account of the visit last week by President Hu Jintao of China that explains why he, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, accorded every possible honor to the jailer of the 2010 winner, Liu Xiaobo. Clearly, the only moral defense would be a statement allying himself henceforth with the Chinese people and their century-and-a-half-old struggle to combine modernization with freedom. This isn't a matter of official dialogues about human rights with Chinese officials, but of constant pressure.

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