Words and Deeds

The debates between the Bush administration's foreign policy realists and those who still push for such causes as nation-building, human rights and multilateralism seem to be producing a distinct division of labor. The soft idealists get to write the president's speeches. The tough realists get to implement the actual policy.

Take Afghanistan. In April President George W. Bush delivered a big speech invoking the Marshall Plan -- the most ambitious nation-building project ever -- in describing his administration's reconstruction policy. But on the ground, no such enterprise is under way. Rather than build up a strong and accountable central government, the United States continues to encourage criminal warlords to govern most of the country. The realists say there is no other choice.

Or the Middle East. Bush delivered a major address two months ago describing "a critical moment" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, dismissing the wisdom that it is insoluble and promising that "America is committed to ending this conflict and beginning an era of peace." In practice, though, his administration has behaved -- at least so far -- as if it believes that canard about a settlement being out of reach. As an internal debate drags on about whether to launch an ambitious peace initiative, the realists have practiced crisis management.

Now comes Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who spent the weekend at Camp David. A week ago Bush delivered another soaring foreign policy speech at West Point, this time promising that his administration would crusade for political freedom and human rights throughout the Islamic world. Some of the rhetoric was positively Wilsonian: "The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation, and their governments should listen to their hopes," Bush said. He spelled out what those rights are: "the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech, and equal justice and religious tolerance."

Egypt's dictator respects none of those principles. So, would he have heard demands at Camp David that he begin to do so or risk the U.S. support that props him up? Well, no, not really. The West Point speech, administration officials explain, was intended to answer critics in the human rights community, not inaugurate a practical initiative.

In fact, the long-standing realist position on Egypt still holds. Mubarak's presumed support, weak as it is, for U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East trumps concerns about his domestic policies. The Bush-Mubarak talks centered on the usual subject, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, not because a breakthrough is in sight but because Mubarak wanted to match the face time Bush has given on the issue to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Lucky for Mubarak that Bush isn't ready to take his own speeches seriously. After all, Jordan, Kuwait and a few of the Persian Gulf states are beginning, if not to accept Bush's principles, then at least to take baby steps toward them. The United States, thanks to a huge aid program, has more leverage over Egypt than any other Arab regime. Moreover, Egypt has had a secular republican government for decades and even a constitution that officially provides for democracy. It could, and should, lead the way in an Arab liberalization.

But Mubarak is moving defiantly in the other direction. Even as he was basking in presidential attention at Camp David, one of Mubarak's courts was hearing the case of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a dual Egyptian-American citizen who is one of the country's foremost advocates of democracy. Ibrahim, 63 and in failing health, is on trial for the second time. Officially, his offense is that he accepted money from "foreign sources" -- also known as the European Union -- for his institute, which has conducted studies of fraud in Mubarak's fake elections. In reality, he was arrested because he published an article calling attention to the Arab world's trend of "republican monarchy," in which long-standing dictators -- read Mubarak -- plot to install their sons -- his is named Gamal -- as their successors.

Some, even in Egypt, dared to question whether it was really against the law for a foundation to receive funding from friendly Western governments. After all, Mubarak himself would perish without his $2 billion a year from the United States. So Mubarak's rubber stamp parliament last week passed a law explicitly banning any such funding for NGOs. For good measure, it also banned private groups from all political activity.

State Department officials tend to shrug with resignation when the subject of Mubarak comes up. At 74, with 20 years of autocracy under his belt, the man has gone rigid, they say -- he can't or won't listen to appeals for change. It's not that reform in Egypt is regarded as a luxury; the consensus inside the administration is that dictators such as Mubarak breed terrorists, and so introducing political and economic freedom to Egypt is a U.S. security interest. Human rights in the Middle East is no longer just a soft policy but one the realists can embrace.

But not now, apparently. Maybe, some officials say vaguely, it will be easier to work for change over time. Someday, after all, Mubarak will retire or die. And there's reason for hope: Gamal is said to be smarter and more flexible than his father.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.