The Cairo speech laid out a series of initiatives for America’s reëngagement with Muslim countries. Almost a year later, as a few of those initiatives have begun to take shape, a general pattern has emerged. The programs focus on entrepreneurship and business development, science education, women’s and children’s health, student exchanges. They do not cover human rights, political empowerment of women, or governance. After an internal debate, the Administration decided to stay away from these more sensitive topics at first and, instead, to build credibility in worthy but uncontroversial areas. It was a legitimate decision, but it has reinforced a view among some Arab reformers that, according to a recent report by the Project on Middle East Democracy, “President Obama has said the right words, but is unwilling or unable to offer substantive new policies to support the aspirations of people in the Middle East.”
Obama is coming up against the limitations of engagement. What if people around the world want more than a humble adjustment in America’s tone and behavior? What if American overtures to nasty regimes fail, because those regimes have a different view of their own survival? Then the President will have to devise a fallback strategy—preferably one that answers the desires of the people who applauded in Cairo, and doesn’t leave another generation cynical about American promises.