President Bush's soaring rhetoric yesterday that the United States will promote the growth of democratic movements and institutions worldwide is at odds with the administration's increasingly close relations with repressive governments in every corner of the world.
Some of the administration's allies in the war against terrorism -- including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan -- are ranked by the State Department as among the worst human rights abusers. The president has proudly proclaimed his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while remaining largely silent about Putin's dismantling of democratic institutions in the past four years. The administration, eager to enlist China as an ally in the effort to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, has played down human rights concerns there, as well.
Bush's speech "brought to a high level the gap between the rhetoric and reality in U.S. foreign policy," said Thomas Carothers, co-author of a new book, "Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East."
"The rhetoric is seamless, but the policy is very muddled. In fact, the war on terrorism has pushed the U.S. to be friendlier with nondemocratic regimes," said Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Administration officials say Bush's goals are a "generational challenge" and should not be judged by the results of one or even two terms. In the speech yesterday, Bush said that "success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." But often in the first term, Bush's objectives on democracy were set aside for more pressing and immediate concerns, such as need for cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Autocratic rulers in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, moreover, would be likely to be replaced by opponents of U.S. policy if free and fair elections were held there today.
Since shortly before the invasion of Iraq, the president has advocated democracy in the Middle East in a series of bold statements and speeches. But the follow-up has often fallen short. In a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy on Nov. 6, 2003, Bush pointed to Egypt, ruled for almost a quarter of a century by President Hosni Mubarak, and declared that the Arab country "should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
But Mubarak, who appears likely to run for president this year in yet another tightly controlled election, has sidestepped possible U.S. pressure to reform by providing key assistance in bids to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this day, the government of Egypt retains veto power over which nongovernmental groups can receive any of the nearly $2 billion in annual U.S. aid.
Egypt has helped the war on terrorism in less savory ways. Bush expressed support yesterday for "democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile." But in late 2001, U.S. authorities forcibly transferred an Australian citizen to Egypt, where, he alleges, he was tortured for six months before being flown to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Human rights experts said Bush's commitment to freedom is undercut by such actions, as well as the administration's treatment of detainees and terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, was struck by the fact that Bush mentioned "liberty" repeatedly but did not use the phrase "human rights" as an overriding goal.
"The decision to speak in terms of liberty instead of human rights was deliberate," Roth said. "Liberty is an abstract concept, but human rights bind everyone, including the Bush administration. It's easy to say I'm for liberty but difficult to say I'm for human rights when he's overseeing what we know is a conscious policy of coercive interrogation, including inhuman treatment and sometimes torture."
During her confirmation hearings this week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice also stressed that she would focus on spreading democracy and freedom around the globe. Several senators questioned her on the inconsistency of the administration's approach, notably Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.). He challenged her to explain why the administration looks the other way when it comes to countries with near-dictatorships, such as Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, while heaping scorn on nations with some level of elections, such as Venezuela and Iran.
"Some of this is a matter of trend lines and where countries have been and where they are now going," Rice replied. Countries are "going to move at different speeds on this democracy test. I don't think there is any doubt about that. But what we have to do is that we have to keep this item on the agenda."
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup, reneged last month on a promise to give up his title as army chief of staff, eliciting little protest from the administration. At her hearings, Rice said she felt that Pakistan has "come a long way" in recent years because Musharraf broke ties with the Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan, and assisted in fighting al Qaeda.
The State Department, in its annual human rights report, has cited Uzbekistan for its "very poor" human rights record, including the torture and killing of citizens in custody for political reasons. There is virtually no freedom of speech or of the press.
Yet Bush met with Uzbekistan's president in 2002 and signed a declaration of "strategic partnership," and senior officials such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have visited the country. The United States "values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region," the State Department said late last year.
Jennifer L. Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, said Bush's goals are laudable, but "my sense from the first four years is that you didn't see that consistency of message in all parts of the administration."
She noted that the administration signed free-trade deals with Morocco and Bahrain, which, after some promising steps toward political reforms, have begun to crack down on human rights groups.