If the Obama administration had been following all along what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described as its policy here Saturday, U.S. officials might know more about the leaders of the extraordinary demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Instead, when it came to nurturing civil society in Egypt the past two years, Clinton's State Department deferred to President Hosni Mubarak. If he didn't want State funding certain groups, State didn't fund them. The result: The moderate, democratic center that Egypt needs at this crucial moment may be less developed and competent than it otherwise would be - and certainly is less familiar to U.S. policymakers.
For the Obama administration 1.0, Egypt mattered most for the help it could provide on Iran, Israel-Palestine, counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. "Values" were a luxury, in a separate basket - something to push for, but only in so far as doing so didn't interfere with strategic interests.
Now, as Clinton explained it here, there's an understanding that pushing for democratic reform is a national interest, too. "This is not just a matter of idealism," she said. "It is a strategic necessity."
Foreign policy always demands a balancing of risks, and the risks of angering an allied dictator or destabilizing his regime understandably tend to weigh heavier on policymakers than the more distant-seeming risks of indulging his repression. In reality, Mubarak cooperated on Iran and counterterrorism only to the extent he saw it in his interest to do so. But he was savvy enough to couch his cooperation as much as possible as a favor to the United States.
Mubarak stomped on any shoots of democratic reform, mostly to entrench his regime but also so he could frighten Americans by portraying Islamists as the only alternative. He played on Israel's vulnerabilities in the same way, making himself valuable by preserving a cold peace while indulging anti-Israel sentiment in Egyptian state-controlled media so that, once again, he seemed the only thing standing between Israel and a hostile population.
The best antidote to such tactics is to nurture a free press, a diversity of political parties, labor unions and other independent organizations - the kind of work that America's National Endowment for Democracy and its offshoots were created to do. No one outside Egypt could control its destiny, but the United States - with the leverage of $1.5 billion in annual aid - could have insisted that Mubarak show more tolerance for tendencies that already existed in Egyptian society.
For the most part, the Obama administration chose not to - because the "freedom agenda" had become too associated with President George W. Bush, because U.S. involvement in Iraq had tarnished the idea of democracy promotion and because it believed "feel-good" democracy promotion would interfere with hardheaded engagement on Mideast peace.
Now the harder-to-imagine risks of the coddling strategy are all too visible. The United States would have done Egypt - and Israel and itself - a great favor over the years if it had pushed Mubarak not to imprison and torture his most viable secular opponents. It would have more credibility with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square if it had done more of that pushing publicly.
Clinton, without acknowledging any change in policy, said in her speech to a security conference here that henceforth the United States will push authoritarian regimes to open up, despite the short-term risks. "The status quo is simply not sustainable," she said.
What will this mean in practice? In Azerbaijan, another secular Muslim dictator, Ilham Aliyev, plays on U.S. fears of Islamic radicalism and the U.S. need for oil to win indulgence when he rigs elections and locks up journalists. Will U.S. officials tell him the status quo is not sustainable?
In China, the Communist Party imprisons or exiles anyone who advocates pluralism in the political system, but the administration has tried to keep human rights issues from interfering with discussions on Iran, currency or trade. Will President Obama be more likely to raise the case of imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo the next time he meets with President Hu Jintao?
It's not that human rights or democracy promotion always should take precedence. China's stance on Iran, Azerbaijan's willingness to stand up to Russia - those are important, too. But recognizing that democracy promotion is also a strategic interest - that the world would be far safer if independent institutions could gradually rise up alongside China's Communist Party, or if anarchy were not the only alternative to the unsavory Aliyev - would lead, over time, to a different weighing of risks.