washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Bush Administration

Idealism in the Face Of a Troubled Reality

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2003; Page A01

In a speech that redefined the U.S. agenda in the Middle East, President Bush waxed eloquent yesterday about his dream of democracy coexisting with Islam and transforming an important geostrategic region that has defiantly held out against the global tide of political change.

But Bush failed to acknowledge the tough realities that are likely to limit significant political progress in the near future: the United States' all-consuming commitment to fighting a global war on terrorism and confronting Islamic militancy. Washington still relies heavily on alliances with autocratic governments to achieve these top priorities.

President Bush says 60 years of the West "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe." (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
live online Live, Noon ET: Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle will discuss the president's speech and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
_____From Today's Post_____
Bush Urges Commitment To Transform Mideast
Analysis: Idealism in the Face of a Troubled Reality
Analysis: Echoes of Reagan Idealism
_____Bush Speech_____
Video: Bush Urges Mideast Reforms
Complete Transcript > Excerpts

The president's vision was an attempt to wrap together major U.S. goals in the Islamic world -- new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, an Arab-Israeli peace, as well as political and economic openings in a wide swath of countries from North Africa to South Asia -- under the wider rubric of promoting democracy. Bush pledged new momentum to foster broad change comparable to the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

"The United States has adopted a new policy: a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results," he vowed in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The speech was clearly aimed at putting troubled Iraq into a more acceptable context for a domestic audience alarmed by the mounting attacks and the now daily troop deaths there. But for a foreign audience, the president did send an important new signal by criticizing decades of Western inaction in the Middle East.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo."

In an unusual move, the president even cited key allies, notably Egypt, that should foster greater change.

"He named names, which he hasn't in the past, and it's vital to do that as the audience in the region needs to know there's an address for his words, namely the Saudi royal family and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Bush basically "threw down the gauntlet to Egypt," one of the two largest recipients of U.S. aid and a stalwart ally, which is likely to infuriate Mubarak, said Hisham Melhem, an Arab journalist and commentator.

In a move that may gradually resonate in Muslim countries, Bush heralded Islam as a force compatible with democracy.

"It should be clear to all that Islam, the faith of one-fifth of humanity, is consistent with democratic rule," Bush said. "A religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government."

The words were striking in the context of 25 years of tensions between the United States and various Islamic movements. For half a century, U.S. policy has implicitly accepted the concept of "Islamic exceptionalism" -- that Islam and democracy are basically incompatible and that Islam cannot be a vehicle for political reform.

"Saying the status quo is unacceptable is revolutionary," Melhem said. For Muslims, the U.S. legacy on political systems in the Middle East has been most starkly defined by the U.S. intervention in Iran to oust a nationalist movement to put the shah back on the throne in 1953 and by the U.S. failure to act, or even condemn the military, when Algerian generals aborted democratic elections in 1991.

But as a result, Washington has a long-standing credibility problem -- and the administration will need to take concrete steps to prove it intends to follow through in ways earlier administrations did not. Bush's speech was short on specifics.

"In the past, every time a U.S. official has talked about democracy and responsible government, people in the region have looked at them and said, 'You're running against a 50-year legacy of doing the opposite.' We grew up understanding that the United States would not tolerate real democracy as we'd end up with governments or leaders or ideologies that were not compatible with the West," Melhem added.

Major democratic change is also likely to prove elusive until the administration is able to stabilize the region's flash points, which have led Washington to perpetuate its reliance on governments willing to use repressive tactics to crack down on either militants or anti-U.S. forces.

"By and large, administration after administration ultimately chooses national security priorities over democracy and discovers more often than not that it's not a trade-off," said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution fellow who also holds the Anwar Sadat chair in peace and development at the University of Maryland.

In a broad assessment of the region, the president inflated the progress toward democracy made by allies such as Saudi Arabia that are harshly criticized for their abuses in the annual U.S. human rights report, while he criticized countries such as Iran that have made some inroads but do not have good relations with Washington.

"His portrayal of what's going on in Arab countries is totally unrealistic," said Marina Ottaway, co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The reality that he is overlooking is that in all these countries that are supposedly making progress, hostility to the United States is at an all-time high," she said. "So the idea that these are countries where progress on democracy is going to make them better allies is certainly not supported by what is going on."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company