Obama and the wrong side of history

By Bernd Debusmann
May 21, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate—Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.—

Ringing words, smoothly delivered: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Did that memorable line from President Barack Obama’s inaugural address on January 20 mean his administration would break with a long American tradition of paying lip service to democracy and human rights while supporting authoritarian rulers friendly to Washington? Too early to say for sure, but probably not.

Four months into his presidency, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, lean towards pragmatism over ideology and principle, closer in foreign policy outlook to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger than to George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

On her first official visit to China, Clinton said concern over human rights must not “interfere” with cooperation on the global financial crisis, climate change and security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear arms programme.

As for those on the wrong side of history, one leader who fits Obama’s description is President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, from where the U.S. president is scheduled to make a high-profile speech to the Muslim world early in June.

A long-time U.S. ally, Mubarak has been in power since 1981. He won uncontested elections four times. The fifth and latest, in 2005, featured charges of vote-rigging and the arrest of his main opponent.

The U.S. Department of State, which issues annual reports on human rights, gives Egypt poor grades and notes “the government’s respect for freedoms of press, association and religion declined during the year (2008).” No unclenched fist here.

To boot, Mubarak has played host and acted as a sponsor to Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes in Darfur. The court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in March.

At the height of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda,” the second-term drive for “democracy promotion,” Washington publicly scolded Mubarak. Rice, during a visit to Cairo, announced a break with the past:

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region. And we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of the people.”


By 2005, when Rice made her democratic aspirations speech, the U.S. image in the Arab world was so badly tarnished by the war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and Guantanamo that few Arabs were inclined to believe anything the Bush administration said.

Her remark stood out for its bluntness and its venue but the idea was not new. Support for democracy against dictatorships has been a key theme of American foreign policy since the U.S. rose to big power status at the turn of the 20th century.

That did not keep the U.S. from overthrowing democratically-elected leaders it did not like (Chile’s Salvador Allende, Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz) and propping up dictators it did (the Shah of Iran, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines). Saying one thing and doing another earned the U.S. an enduring reputation for hypocrisy.

The Bush administration’s enthusiasm for democracy promotion in the Middle East fizzled rapidly after the Islamist group Hamas, shunned as a terrorist group by the West, won a resounding electoral victory in Gaza in 2006. Since then, part of the American foreign policy establishment has framed the alternatives in the region as Islamists or authoritarians.

If there were free elections today in Egypt, many experts predict that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim is the establishment of an Islamic state, would win easily, an uncomfortable prospect for Washington.

To push an Arab peace plan Obama wants to make part of an effort to create a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, Mubarak is clearly a better partner even though he may be on the wrong side of history. The plan offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for withdrawing from territory it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The plan was first floated by Saudi Arabia, another staunch U.S. ally far from democracy and prone to silence dissent.

How (and whether) Obama intends to persuade countries on the wrong side of history to switch to the right side should become clear in his speech to the Muslim world. It could be a turning point in America’s relations with a fifth of the world’s population, but there is a lot that could go wrong, even for a president with Obama’s charisma and outstanding political skills. Not to mention a middle name that resonates: Hussein.

The goal he set himself for the speech, spelt out before he took office, is ambitious: “Reboot America’s image” in the Muslim world. Words alone won’t do it, but they are a start.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/


AND when two “Multinationals” go at it, for how many YEARS do those things go on?

Lawyers i bet drool with anticipation, and about kill each other to get their hands on a TEN year fight like that, MY GOD how much an hour? For ten years!?!?!?!

Posted by C. D. Walker | Report as abusive

As I said before, the four factors of production determine productivity. Not just for the economy itself, but for the individual.

Take the humble farmer. He posesses a farm (Land). He works that farm (Labour). He purchases grain, machinery or animals as an investment(Capital). And he uses those three resources in order to profit (Enterprise).

Money is not a resource in itself. It is a currency used for the exchange of resources.

If people have resources to sell, then they get money.

To believe that you can simply take profit and GDP and scatter it around is error. It is artificial and has nothing to do with the economic system.

Regardless of what anyone may say, profit is what drives the economy. Even if some regulation in the right areas may help keep it on an even keel.

If you disagree, that is fine. As long as your disagreement is based on at least a high school level understanding of economics.

Posted by Anon. | Report as abusive

How many times has a farmer ripped you off?

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive


The fact that you can’t even understand the true duties of a judge and jury speaks volumes.

It is obvious that you have bitter preconceived notions about lawyers(and politicians, businessmen, investors and anyone richer or more powerful then you). It is not my business to try and change your mind. From your posts, I doubt you ever will.

When people get on the soapbox and preach anti-elitist ideas, they show their own ignorance more then anything else. And while they may not care, others can see it quite clearly.

Aside from that, there is little more to be said.

Posted by Anon. | Report as abusive

“Money is not a resource in itself. It is a currency used for the exchange of resources. ”

What does it say then, about “Business” and “Banks” in general when they know this “Currency” needs to flow, and they purposely create the economic, social, political, and judicial situation where the “Credit” wont flow?

If i wanted to grab as much land as I could, i would try to get as many people in “Homes” that were “WAY TO EXPENSIVE” for them, on purpose,ON CREDIT, “KNOWING” they couldn’t pay eventually, (Especially if i got my OIL buddies AT THE SAME TIME to inflate the value of OIL, CUTTING INTO THE POCKETS OF AMERICANS)and it would be only a matter of time before they would default, foreclose, and who then holds the DEEDs? Communist banks supported by the FEDERAL RESERVE (who sets inflation, making property more and more expensive) get to take as much “PRIVATE PROPERTY” as the could scam out of the Public, and the OIL DICKS got to rake in “Record Breaking Profits”, Now the bailouts go to WHOM!!!

How is that for High School

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Come gather round, listen to my story
about our flag nicknamed “Old Glory”
What is a flag but canvas and thread?
She means more to my heart and head.
Blue of Royalty, now stands for Nobility
a certainty white stands for OUR Purity
We Free the world with the Red blood we bleed
For honor she stands, the red white and blue
she stands for the common man, me and you
The foundation of the worlds Justice
She no longer stands for Just US
Tyrants tremble at the mention of her name
To them she forever brings great shame
I tremble at her sight, thinking of all those who’ve died
Protecting what’s right, for her sons, America has cried
I dream a dream of better things
of places and deeds of greater needs
We fight for the right
by GODS sight
See how evil has been diminished?
We won’t stop until it is finished.
I am proud to walk Americas free land
I pledge the flag with heart under hand
I promise soldiers long past
They died holding on to duty and honor
I HONOR them every time my eyes fall on her
OUR flag of canvas and thread
Don’t you dare on her tread
Time grows short, this my story soon ends
Look at OLD GLORY, see how in the wind she bends?
Only by some sorry twist of fate
Our flag of FREEDOM will never Break!


C. D. Walker

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Self proclaimed prophet,
Wishes to preach so badly,
He fails to listen.

Posted by YouKnowWho | Report as abusive

Interesting, ignorance is still on parade, now joined by jealousy, bitterness and paranoia. I guess bad poetry and typing in ALL CAPS passes for intelligent debate on the internet.
The great thing about that is you don’t even need to say anything to make someone like that look foolish, they do it for you. There’s a bit of advice I often give to these people, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Thanks for removing the doubt.

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive

We yet to collect Ed’s opinion on purpose of Law and Justice.
But so far C.D. & Anon opinion/observation that Law & Justice is all about “Sniff out crime and brush it away”. That what we see in US.
US/Russia go head to head in % population in prison US ~0.7% Russia ~0.6% (China ~0.1%).

While number of lawyers more than in the rest of the world combined.

“Sniff out crime and brush it away” – that was the order that Tzar Ivan ‘the Terrible’ gave his guards in XV century.

Most of civilize world use Law & Justice system the identify troublemakers and steer them back to society while US/China/Russia see Law & Justice in light of XV century.

I am not a big prison advocate. But numbers speak for themselves.
System also fails in big business Cases when Judge & lawyers end up in bazaar bargains while crooks ALWAYS walk away.

I was in Small Courts at least 10 times all over NY/NJ/PA fighting speeding tickets :)). I was paying my ‘speed taxes’ and had my chance to see justice at work.

I was really surprise always to see Prosecutors & Judges go really long way to help people AVOID heavy penalties. In most cases even moderate penalties would ruin someone live beyond repair. Prosecutors & Judges always look like really moral persons, but it was dead clear that they can strike at will.

Here is one of my favorite quotes:
“We and State police troopers realize that traffic law is quite unreasonable, so if somebody would like plea guilty and trade 2 points for $xxx please see me…”.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

To C.D.,
I respect your feeling and glad that there are some people around who type in CAPS when it comes to the Flag and History of their country. That what make the backbone of the Nation. Countries without nation quickly sink into bloody bath of civil wars just look around the globe.

But when you are wrong when you talk about greedy bankers vs. ‘old good days’.
Because there were very few ‘old good days’. Life always was tough here in US and more tough abroad. This is human nature that when we write stories about everyday tough life we mentions only bright spots. Even with greedy bankers and faulty law US moves forward getting more and more prosperous.America seams to be able reinvent herself in times of crises. But we all afraid of fine print ‘Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results’.

Posted by Serey | Report as abusive


“Sniff out crime and brush it away” That might have been for a Tzar,

But here in America, when we “Sniff out Crime”, we make the criminal pay a penance, we don’t “Brush it Away”

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

It’s funny I can’t remember the last time I thought about the purpose of the Law. I think I would summarize the purpose of the law is to order society in a just manner, to protect the innocent, punish the guilty and provide means other than brute force to decide disputes.
How do I rate a system, well I would see how it treats the weak against the strong. Certainly, our system fails on that basis for many reasons. Money certainly provides an unfair advantage, but as long as their are differences in people’s wealth, that will sadly be the case. Can our system be improved, certainly, does that mean we need brain scans or to eliminate lawyers, no.

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive

Thank you Ed,

I certainly don’t want see the Law without lawyers.
I also don’t like to see someone case being decided by MRI based lie-detector. I used to design medical imaging equipment before I sold my sole to finance :).

We all seam to agree that Law is hostage to people who supposed to serve the Law (Judges and lawyers). The lawyer’s service is prohibiting expensive that give rich and corporates unfair advantage. Judges and lawyers also make most people who write the Law of this land. It It means that all changes to legal system come from inside and all system have really hard time to evolve from inside.

Ed, what do you think about codified law like in most European countries?
AFAIK US common Law relies on endless precedents. They tend to stay the same while World around changes ever faster :).

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive


“To believe that you can simply take profit and GDP and scatter it around is error. It is artificial and has nothing to do with the economic system.

Regardless of what anyone may say, profit is what drives the economy. Even if some regulation in the right areas may help keep it on an even keel.

If you disagree, that is fine. As long as your disagreement is based on at least a high school level understanding of economics.”

I can point to the free open software movement and the principles that drive the innovation found there. I can point to its success, and come to the logical conclusion that if the principle applies to code, then it applies to currency because currency occupies a similar place.

Equal distribution of GDP does not represent some two dimensional idea of the government simply pumping money into undeserving hands.

The government is responsible for protecting the boarders, establishing and enforcing our system of law, and providing for the general defense, (please forgive me if I missed anything).

The government regularly takes in more money than it needs to fulfill these goals. The rest should be equally divided across the population. This provides a much better safety net than any of the programs currently available for that very purpose.

Get rid of funding for medicaid, medicare, education, etc… and instead keep the government agencies that oversee these programs in place as sector regulators.

For example. Stop using the us department of education to finance public schools. Instead, divert the money used (inefficiently)by the board of education directly into the pockets of citizens. This way people can choose their own schools.

The same principle can be applied to government health programs, and all other non-essential programs.

Aside from that it would still be business as usual. The steady stream of GDP returning to the pockets of the average citizen means that people aren’t trapped in jobs they hate, and businesses aren’t held at the mercy of unions because each individual already has their own safety net to fall back on.

This allows people to take more risks and be more creative, which in turn leads to innovation and increased productivity.
And with new industries come new tax revenues, which in turn strengthen the safety net and we have sustainable growth.

Please explain to me where you find cause to object, and by what argument you justify your claim that “To believe that you can simply take profit and GDP and scatter it around is error. It is artificial and has nothing to do with the economic system.”

Benny Acosta:

“I can point to the free open software movement and the principles that drive the innovation found there. I can point to its success, and come to the logical conclusion that if the principle applies to code, then it applies to currency because currency occupies a similar place.”

Do you know what are you talking about?

1. Most people in open source community don’t make living from open source. They collect salaries at main job while doing open source for fun.

2. From people who contribute to open source full time most people paid by IBM, Sun and universities.

3. Most major projects in open source are ‘leftovers’ from failed companies and their ideas. Starting with linux that has build on unix ideas rather that being reinvented from scratch. Open source was just way around licensing. Even you should understand that real challenge are research and ideas. Implementation (coding) done by code monkeys.

4. Very few companies do business by providing services around open source. This is only possible because huge implicit ‘investment’ from n.1 n.2. n.3


Open source concept is close to original ideas of utopia communism. The only time it was somewhat successfully implemented in Israel kibbutzes movement. That today fail competition with real farms. Needless to say that kibbutzes fall short from anything but self sustain communities.

Posted by Serey | Report as abusive

Well, here the thing that makes your idea problematic, it’s this thing that many theorists and thinkers forget, it’s called reality. I don’t disagree with your theory, but please explain to me how it’s going to be implemented. I mean the nuts and bolts of the system and more importantly how you are going to convince people to go along with what is, no matter how you want to couch it communism.

Posted by Edwaed M. Blake | Report as abusive