The big retreat to realism concerns democracy promotion. The Bush administration tried to promote democracy, even at the expense of stability. That proved unworkable.
But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.
There was a democracy-promotion section to the speech, and given the struggle behind it, maybe we should be grateful it was there at all. But it was stilted and abstract ”” the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate. The president didn’t really champion democratic institutions. He said that governments “should reflect the will of the people” and that citizens should “have a say” in how they are governed.