One of the interesting features of the current events in Egypt is that they have driven Barack Obama and his administration to a far more significant embrace of human rights language than ever before. Recall that during the last outburst of Middle Eastern protest, in Iran in the summer of 2009, Obama — having suggested he had learned the lessons of neoconservative universalism — relied on religious language of “bearing witness” to what happened as repression abroad happened. We might stand idly by, he implied, as repression beckoned, but we should shed a tear and remember the victims. This time, he announced clearly that “universal rights” are at stake. And Obama is now warning that the repression can’t go too far.
It will be fascinating to watch this change develop, and how far Obama takes his newfound commitment to the language. It will also be significant to watch whether, alongside human rights, “democracy promotion” gets a new lease on life. Signs of this are already occurring, assignificant neoconservative commentators retrieve tarnished views, against worries about short-term stability, or even narrow concern about regional politics. At the same time, more liberal commentators insist that the freedom agenda means (always meant?) something slightly different than flawed neoconservative visions.
Lots depends, of course, on what happens in Egypt — not so much how far the US goes in supporting democratization, but what different versions of democracy (if any) end up being on the table. Stay tuned.