The Realities of Exporting Democracy

The United States has called for the release of Ayman Nour, who ran as a challenger against the Egyptian president in a manipulated election.
The United States has called for the release of Ayman Nour, who ran as a challenger against the Egyptian president in a manipulated election. (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sitting in a prison cell halfway around the planet, an Egyptian opposition leader forced President Bush this month to confront the question of how serious he was when he vowed to devote his second term to "ending tyranny in our world."

Ayman Nour, who dared challenge Egypt's authoritarian leader in manipulated elections, was sentenced on Christmas Eve to five years on what U.S. officials consider bogus charges. Inside the administration, a debate ensued over whether to shelve a new trade agreement with Egypt in protest. In the end, the trade talks were suspended and an Egyptian negotiating team invited to Washington last week was told it was no longer welcome.

In the year since Bush redefined U.S. foreign policy in his second inaugural address to make the spread of democracy the nation's primary mission, the clarion-call language has resonated in the dungeons and desolate corners of the world. But soaring rhetoric has often clashed with geopolitical reality and competing U.S. priorities.

While the administration has enjoyed notable success in promoting liberty in some places, it has applied the speech's principles inconsistently in others, according to analysts, activists, diplomats and officials. Beyond its focus on Iraq, Washington has stepped up pressure on repressive regimes in countries such as Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe -- where the costs of a confrontation are minimal -- while still gingerly dealing with China, Pakistan, Russia and other countries with strategic and trade significance.

In the Middle East, where the administration has centered its attention, it has promoted elections in the Palestinian territories such as today's balloting for parliament, even as it directed money aimed at clandestinely preventing the radical Islamic group Hamas from winning. And although it has now suspended trade negotiations with Egypt, it did not publicly announce the move, nor has it cut the traditionally generous U.S. aid to Cairo.

"The glass is a quarter full, but we need more of it," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a group that promotes democracy. "The administration deserves credit, but it's just a start."

In its annual survey ranking nations as free, partly free or not free, the group upgraded nine nations or territories in 2005 and downgraded four. Among those deemed freer were Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where peaceful revolutions overthrew entrenched governments; Lebanon, where Syrian occupation troops were pressured to withdraw; and Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, where trailblazing elections were held. Overall, Freedom House concluded, "the past year was one of the most successful for freedom" since the survey began in 1972.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch released its annual report, upbraiding the Bush administration for undermining its credibility in promoting freedom abroad through its embrace of abusive interrogation tactics in the battle with terrorists. "There's no question that the issue of torture in particular has compromised the U.S. voice, and not only torture but a manifold list of other human rights issues," said the group's associate director, Carroll Bogert.

The broader question is the degree to which Bush's speech marked genuine change in policy rather than so much talk. In many parts of the government, democracy promotion seems still to take a back seat to other goals.

After the government in Uzbekistan massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijan, for instance, the Pentagon resisted any tough response to protect its military base there. Ultimately, even the restrained statements by the U.S. government alienated the autocratic Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, who threw out the U.S. military.

"They come into conflict every day," a senior official said of rival priorities inside the administration. "The question becomes the weight given to the intangible interest in freedom versus the tangible interest in having a base in Uzbekistan, for instance."

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing administration rules, called Bush's speech "a weapon in the hands of everyone in the administration who is pushing for a stronger and stronger democracy agenda."

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