President Bush now says his inaugural address outline of a global U.S. campaign against tyranny was merely an ideal, not a plan for policy. Fair enough; no one really believes an overnight reversal in American relations with Russia or China makes sense. But last week's backtracking raised a depressing possibility: that Bush will make no significant alterations in foreign relations after promising, in an address fastidiously styled for history books, "the greatest achievements in the history of freedom." If so, his second term will simply compound the damage of his first to U.S. global prestige and influence; both dictators and dissidents will conclude that America's proclamations can be dismissed as hollow and hypocritical. Bush himself will be remembered as one of the greatest blowhards in U.S. history.
In fact the president has the means to make good on his rhetoric without launching new wars or rupturing relations with key allies. But he can't do it merely by bashing the weak pariah states recently ticked off by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, such as Belarus and Burma. To leave a real mark, Bush has to tackle the crucial conflict he avoided in his first term, between the goal of democracy on the one hand, and U.S. security and economic interests. He should do it in the places where the choices are hardest: Pakistan, Egypt and, yes, Russia. In each case, he has the opportunity to demonstrably tip the balance of U.S. influence toward promoting his ideal.
Start with Pakistan. Administration officials describe the military regime of Pervez Musharraf as if it were a precious piece of china: If not coddled, they warn, it may shatter, opening the way for Taliban-style Islamic extremists to seize control over a nuclear arsenal. That's exactly what the general wants Washington to believe, and it's why he has spent his five years in office promoting Pakistan's Taliban while repressing the secular and pro-Western democratic political parties displaced by his coup.
Bush need not rupture relations with Musharraf, or choke off the billions in U.S. aid he has been promised. He needs only to order his administration and allied non-government groups to develop a program to help the Pakistan People's Party and Muslim League, along with other secular civil society groups, rebuild and reform themselves, much as U.S. agencies are promoting the reform and modernization of Palestinian institutions. Musharraf, meanwhile, can be pressed to conduct a political dialogue with those parties, rather than the Muslim extremists he has dealt with until now, and to commit himself to allowing them full and fair participation in the next parliamentary elections, in two years. The general might resist a little, but for $600 million a year and a U.S. security blanket, it's not too much to ask.
Next comes Egypt, where the administration continues to prop up 76-year-old president Hosni Mubarak with $1.8 billion in annual aid but has made no visible effort to dissuade him from rigging another referendum to grant himself five more years in power. Like Musharraf, Mubarak frightens Washington with nightmare scenarios: A free election, he whispers, would only lead to a fundamentalist Muslim regime in Cairo. More credible Egyptians, like the dissident (and would-be presidential candidate) Saad Eddin Ibrahim, hotly dispute that theory.
But never mind: Bush need not explicitly aim at forcing democratic elections in Egypt this year. He need only inform Mubarak that he no longer will be granted a veto over the tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid earmarked for democracy promotion. The money can then be used to train and support the opposition parties and independent human rights groups that have recently sprung up in Egypt. If Mubarak tries to stop funding for the democrats, there should be none for him and his army. As in Pakistan, the United States would present its favored tyrant with a new formula: We will continue to support you only if we can also help build the democratic movements that will one day succeed you.
That strategy has a proven record: It just worked in Ukraine, where a paltry $58 million in U.S. spending on democratic political parties and allied groups, married to a cordial but arms-length relationship with a thuggish president, helped bring about the peaceful transformation of his regime into a genuine democracy. It also offers an excellent way to adjust American relations with Ukraine's neighbor, Russia, and Bush's favorite autocrat, Vladimir Putin. Bush suggested at his news conference last week that he might reason with Putin in private about the virtues of democracy. But the private wheedling of thugs rarely gets results. Bush should instead save his breath and do his necessary business with Putin -- and then order up more U.S. aid and training for Russia's beleaguered democrats. U.S. aid for democracy in Russia this year is $43 million, an increase over last year but still too little to make a real difference.
Of course, Putin might be irritated, but he can no more afford a rupture with the United States than Mubarak or Musharraf. The greater risk is that Bush will pass the next year without causing some discomfort for the tyrants of Moscow, Cairo and Islamabad -- and that the rhetoric he meant to be inspirational will instead be turned against him.