President Bush said yesterday a fledgling democratic movement that he sees spreading through the Middle East is essential to defeating terrorism, and warned Syria and Iran against thwarting the "momentum of freedom" and fomenting instability in the region.
"The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades," Bush said at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. "Yet, at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun."
Following up on his inaugural pledge to "end tyranny around the world," Bush demanded that Syria immediately withdraw its troops from Lebanon, called on both Syria and Iran to stop terrorist activities in the region, and directly pressed for open presidential elections in Egypt.
Speaking at a war college where Dwight D. Eisenhower and Colin L. Powell studied, Bush, for the first time, claimed some measure of credit for the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East and sought to explain how these developments will make the United States safer from terrorists. In the past months, Iraq and the Palestinians held democratic elections, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signaled their intentions to open up their voting processes -- although in a very limited fashion -- and the Lebanese people took to the streets and forced the resignation of the Syrian-controlled government.
Events, some largely outside Bush's control, are setting the tempo for democracy in the Middle East as much as the president's policies. Lebanon, a nation rarely mentioned by Bush until the popular uprising, dominated yesterday's speech, while Iraq, the central focus of U.S. foreign policy, received only passing mention at the end of the address.
"All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience," Bush told the people of Lebanon. "The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side."
Bush, who views the events as vindication of his policy, is hoping to build on recent developments by putting pressure on Syria and Iran to relent to international demands, and by pushing Cairo, Riyadh and others in the region toward democracy. "No matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult the task, we will fight the enemy, and lift the shadow of fear and lead free nations to victory," he said. He called authoritarian rule the "last gasp of a discredited past."
The president sent a stronger message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who recently announced plans to open up elections in his country to other parties even though his government will control who participates. Bush, putting Mubarak on the spot, delineated what he would consider acceptable conditions for elections in Egypt: "freedom of assembly, multiple candidates, free access by those candidates to the media and the right to form political parties."
Bush condemned Syria and Iran for their ties to terrorists, and for the first time, he publicly accused Syria of harboring the group responsible for a suicide bombing last month in Israel. "America and other nations are also aware that the recent terrorist attack in Tel Aviv was conducted by a radical Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus," he said.
Aides said the president considered this an important speech on terrorism at what he called a "time of great consequence." He enlisted adviser Michael J. Gerson, the author of Bush's most memorable first-term addresses who was recently promoted to a top policy position, to help craft the carefully worded speech, White House aides said. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a supporter of Bush's policies in the region, was rewarded with a front-row seat and a mention by Bush.
Throughout the speech, Bush said the spread of democracy is crucial to defeating terrorists and safeguarding the United States from another attack. "It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbors," he said. "It should be clear the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance kindled in free societies."
Picking up an argument he made throughout the 2004 campaign, Bush said America is safer is because the administration is targeting terrorists and regimes that harbor them. "When terrorists spend their days struggling to avoid death or capture, they are less capable of arming and training to commit new attacks," he said.
Bush praised several allies, including Britain and Pakistan, for stepping up efforts to track down terrorists, even as Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, remains at large. "Many governments have awakened to the dangers we share and have begun to take action," he said.
The president acknowledged that there are still many obstacles to democracy in the region. With successful elections behind them, the Iraqis are struggling to put together a democratic government amid continued violence and ethnic and religious strife. The United States, which has suffered more than 1,500 military deaths since invading the country almost two years ago, has more than 135,000 troops there helping to defeat a persistent insurgency and to get the new government running.
In his speech, Bush did not mention the estimated 500,000 protesters who took to the streets of Beirut yesterday to condemn the United States -- not the Syrian government. White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that the president was "glad to see people peacefully express their views," but that the protest served as a reminder of the hostilities Bush -- and democracy -- face in many areas of the Middle East.
Bush did not signal whether the United States will assume a larger role in international talks to verify that Iran is not building nuclear weapons, but he prodded that nation to follow the trends of its neighbors. "We look forward to the day when Iran joins in the hopeful changes taking place around the world."
Some Democrats criticized Bush for glossing over how he will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, as well as how he intends to protect U.S. borders, ports and buildings from terrorists. "He did not mention the two great, unfinished reform projects we must complete if we are to be safer: reform of our intelligence capabilities, and the protection of our biggest homeland security vulnerabilities," Sen. Jon S. Corzine (N.J.) said.
But Bush said there is a larger purpose to his strategy. "We are also determined to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."