He fretted about turnout the other day because, as he put it, that is what politicians do. Never mind that his name will not be on the ballot. For President Bush, back-to-back elections in the Middle East starting today represent a milestone that, for better or worse, will help shape the legacy of his presidency.
The vote for a new Palestinian president today and the election of a new National Assembly in Iraq in three weeks add up to the first meaningful test for Bush's vision of spreading democracy to a region ruled almost exclusively by monarchs, despots and theocrats.
In Bush's view, successful elections in two of the world's most volatile places will ignite a chain reaction of reform and public pressure that will shake repressive governments across Arab society. Yet in this region, the term "battleground states" takes on more ominous meaning, and the cycle of violence and terrorism threatens further destabilization that could, skeptics say, undermine Bush's "march of democracy."
The real results, therefore, may not be known when polls close in Gaza City and the West Bank tonight or across Iraq on Jan. 30, 10 days after Bush's inauguration to a second term. It may be months, even years before the ripple effects of the elections become clear. Yet either way, triumph or disaster, analysts and administration officials agree they will indelibly mark the Bush record.
"His inauguration is bracketed by two events that are very big, very important for the meaning and success of his presidency," said William Kristol, chief of staff to former vice president Dan Quayle and now editor of the Weekly Standard. "No one thinks everything changes the day after the elections. But what some people thought was a naive Wilsonian democracy may turn out to be his real legacy."
Others still see that as a romantic illusion hardly grounded in the reality of the region, a view voiced most prominently last week by Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser for Bush's father. Larry Diamond, who served as a senior adviser for Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq last year, said in an interview that by insisting on holding elections in Iraq this month Bush would "grease the slide to civil war."
"He's a very stubborn man," Diamond said, "and there's a fine line between Churchillian resolve and self-defeating obstinacy, and I think he's going over the line on this."
Bush, who keeps a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office and identifies with the wartime British prime minister, has made democracy in the Middle East a signature goal for his administration, rhetorically at least. In November 2003, echoing the idealism of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, he called for a "forward strategy of freedom" that would involve a decades-long effort to promote pluralism in Arab nations. Privately Bush has expressed the belief that success at such an endeavor would be the achievement he would be most remembered for in 50 years.
"I believe democracy can take hold in parts of the world that have been condemned to tyranny," he told reporters in the Oval Office on Friday. "And I believe when democracies take hold, it leads to peace. That's been the proven example around the world. Democracies equal peace. And that's what we're trying to advance in this administration."
Bush's neoconservative allies point to the recent "orange revolution" in Ukraine as a model for how democracy can spread. The opposition in Kiev was inspired by the success of a similar nonviolent popular uprising a year earlier in the former Soviet republic of Georgia -- the "rose revolution." Now would-be democrats in places such as Belarus have taken hope from the success in next-door Ukraine.
Bush also often cites the example of Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai was elected president last fall despite deep skepticism about the ability to conduct balloting in a feudal country still ruled largely by warlords and ravaged by decades of war, poverty and strife.
Yet Bush's vision is sometimes applied selectively. While he pushes some countries to change, he does little publicly to pressure the autocratic governments of key allies, such as Russia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, the path to reform in the Middle East is fraught with peril. Aside from isolated exceptions, such as parliamentary elections in Kuwait or Jordan, the Middle East has little experience with democracy nor have its leaders demonstrated eagerness to experiment.
The two upcoming elections are distinct in many ways. Palestinians will choose a successor to the late Yasser Arafat, and polls show former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas with a 3-to-1 lead over his nearest rival, forecasting a victory that could revitalize the Middle East peace process. For years, Bush pushed the Palestinians to replace Arafat; administration officials are looking forward to working with Abbas, who has vocally opposed armed conflict with Israel.
The election is a homegrown affair, rather than a Bush initiative, but it will be only the second presidential vote since the Palestinian Authority was created, after Arafat's 1996 election. Palestinians also went to the polls last month to choose local officials in the first municipal elections in 28 years.