Obama proclaims an end to Bush's regime-change doctrine
His Cairo speech asserted that a country should not impose its system of government upon another.
Tucked inside President Obama's 55-minute speech Thursday to the world's Muslims were four paragraphs that laid out his approach to democracy.
His message? America recognizes a universal yearning for the right to self-government, but regime change in democracy's name is over.
"No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other," Mr. Obama said.
That premise distances the president from the controversial doctrines of the Bush administration and reestablishes a more traditional approach to encouraging democracy. Critics called it a a cheap crowd-pleaser that misrepresented the reasons the US invaded Iraq.
Presidents at least since Harry Truman have encouraged democratic change and applied pressure to bring it about. But use of force to achieve that end was rare.
Obama "is trying to set the restart button somewhere back before George W. Bush," says Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "This is a post-Bush recalibration."
But others say Obama's statement carries the whiff of an apology for the Iraq invasion, which encourages an incorrect stereotype about US action under President Bush.
"The notion that the US went to war in Iraq to impose democracy is rubbish," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. "We went to war – whether it was a good or bad decision – for reasons that had to do with calculations of threats and strategic interests, not for reasons of democracy."
Obama's opening statements disavowing the imposition of democracy were unfortunate lines in an otherwise commendable argument, adds Mr. Lieber. "[After the opening line] he handled the issue fairly deftly, offering a strong rebuttal to the notion that democracy is somehow an American or Western or Judeo-Christian hobbyhorse," he says.
Obama said: "All people yearn for certain things," including "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed," the rule of law and the freedom to live as one chooses. "These are not just American ideas. They are human rights," Obama added, "and that is why we will support them everywhere."
To some international human-rights advocates, Obama failed those who are fighting the authoritarian regimes of many Muslim-majority countries. But Obama found a way to support democratic yearnings and those who aspire to them, without abandoning the undemocratic regimes that have strategic relations with the US, Lieber says.
The US will use incentives such as support for human-rights advocates to encourage democratization, "but no more invasions" – at least not in the name of democracy, says Mr. Carothers of Carnegie.
The Obama administration may have provided an example of its approach to democratization not long before the president spoke. Wednesday, it approved a compromise with the Organization of American States that sets out a path for Cuba to reenter that organization.
With US support, the OAS voted to readmit Cuba – but on the condition that Cuba adhere to OAS principles of democracy and human rights.