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Dignity Promotion in Cairo

A little over a year ago, I spent some time with the Obama campaign’s foreign policy brain trust to glean the emerging preoccupations of his advisers. There were two overarching themes: first, the meta-idea that Obama would expand the realm of the possible in foreign policy by rejecting the typical frameworks of Washington debate; and second, that Obama needed to stand for the promotion of human dignity — that is, to address the basic material and aspirational needs of impoverished and oppressed communities in order to prevent them from being exploited by demagogues and extremists. Both were present in the Cairo speech today.

On expanding the debate, the fact that the speech occurred in Cairo is a fairly strong indicator that Obama is dissatisfied with conventional framings, but beyond that, he portrayed “violent extremism” as a problem afflicting global Muslim communities rather than primarily a threat to the west — which, of course, it is. This is a point that President Bush made as well, on occasion and to his credit, but Obama elevated it, especially when he called on Muslims to address “

But the whole speech reflected a belief in dignity promotion. The section of his speech that focused on women’s rights connected the issue to a broader narrative about development, and gave a judicious rejection of Western confusion over the connection between women’s autonomy and religious tolerance:

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Similarly, he framed his discussion of democracy promotion in a way that challenged today’s dissidents not to be tomorrow’s demagogues:

There are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

That is one heady statement, and while it may be too far afield for the comfort of those rotting in Egyptian prisons, it expressed a sentiment that establishes a firmer basis for U.S. cooperation with those dissidents.

There was a bit of laundry-listing of specific programs and efforts for development — science envoys, polio eradication, business partnerships, moving beyond the rentier-state dependence in the Middle East on oil and gas revenues — but the effort went to show that the administration has something to offer the Muslim world other than good will and rhetoric. Obama acknowledged that he’ll have to do much more than give a speech in order to bridge the divide between the U.S. and Muslim communities. But as a statement of intent, it’s impressive to see the maturation of an Obama doctrine.

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