One benefit of all the coverage of the Egyptian crisis is pointing up the cynical and ineffective American policy on encouraging democracy in states led by "useful dictators." Maybe there's a path forward in the approach by the late Sen. Henry Jackson.
Jackson in 1974 enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, designed to pressure the Soviet Union to release Jews and dissidents to emigrate to Israel. The leverage was the threat to remove Russia's "most-favored-nation" designation, a valuable trade advantage to the Soviet Union. It worked. (Vanik, by the way, was Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio.)
It took a while for the Soviet Union to comply, but it's estimated that 1 million Jews were able to emigrate to Israel and another 500,000 (including evangelical Christians and Catholics) were resettled in the U.S. The law, still in effect, is a landmark of human-rights legislation. It has a loophole, however, by which the President can waive its requirements. Such has been done regularly in the case of China.
Jackson-Vanik was stoutly resisted by Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state. Soviet dissident and democracy advocate Natan Sharansky has written that Kissinger saw Scoop's maneuver "as an attempt to undermine plans to smoothly carve up the geopolitical pie between the superpowers." The amendment, still controversial, was a rare victory for democracy and human rights over cynical realism about trade and balance-of-power politics.
Sharansky is still pushing this basic approach, linking American aid to real progress in democracy issues. In a fascinating interview with David Feith of The Wall Street Journal, the famous Jewish Soviet dissident argues that we should condition ongoing American support of Egypt this way: "20 percent of all this money goes to strenghtening and developing democratic institutions. And the money cannot be controlled by the Egyptian government."
"Linkage," as this policy is called, has fallen out of favor since Scoop Jackson's famously stubborn stand for it in 1974. Instead, we have billions in aid flowing to autocratic regimes, mixed in with the occasional speech by an American president insisting, toothlessly, on the need for democratic reform. In 2002, Condoleezza Rice threatened to withhold $130 million in aide to Egypt, a small portion, and achieved the release of democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim from prison, but then it was soon back to high-minded speechifying. Obama's 2009 address in Cairo had only vague language about democracy.
The advantage of "linkage" is that it steers a middle course between pure human-rights foreign policy, having nothing to to with dictators, and pure realpolitik, which props up such figures with no concessions beyond lip service. We're starting to see how bankrupt the money-with-speeches approach has become.