By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
At the United Nations lectern this week, President Bush hailed the spread of democracy. "From Beirut to Baghdad," he said, "people are making the choice for freedom." Yet even as he spoke, tanks were rolling through the streets of Bangkok as a military coup toppled the elected leader of Thailand, who at that moment was in New York for the U.N. session.
Bush made no mention of the dramatic events on Tuesday and left New York yesterday without ever seeing the deposed prime minister, much less offering any public support for a onetime strong ally of the United States. The president's spokesman later provided a strikingly mild response only after being asked by a reporter, pronouncing the White House "disappointed" by the coup.
The timing of Bush's address on democracy to the U.N. General Assembly and the overthrow of a democratically elected government underlined the complexities and contradictions in his "freedom agenda." With the president's attention focused on the Middle East, the state of democracy elsewhere in the world does not rate as high on his priority list. In the case of Thailand, the situation is complicated by growing U.S. unease with the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
"The president's freedom agenda is inherently selective," said Thomas Carothers, head of the democracy project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We care very much about democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but . . . Thailand's just not part of the story, so this falls off the map a bit."
Thailand is hardly the only example. Bush strongly supports Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president who took power in a military coup, and plans to meet with him at the White House twice in the next week. Bush will also host Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the end of next week despite the suppression of opposition parties, newspapers and human rights groups in the oil-rich Central Asian republic.
The administration has likewise embraced autocratic leaders in such disparate places as Azerbaijan and Ethiopia while generally tempering criticism of anti-democratic policies in Russia and China. Even in the Middle East, Bush has treaded lightly in nudging allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to reform.
On the other hand, the White House ratcheted up its pressure this month on the repressive government in Burma. After meeting with a dissident, Bush personally lobbied to get the U.N. Security Council to put Burma on the agenda last week for possible sanctions. And first lady Laura Bush hosted a roundtable at the United Nations on democracy in that country.
When the president talks about promoting democracy, as he did in New York on Tuesday, he focuses mainly on Iraq and Afghanistan. Some other countries that he once highlighted as success stories have been dropped from his speeches, most notably Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
In Ukraine, the popular coalition that led the "Orange Revolution" of December 2004 has splintered and the new prime minister is the same one the street protests targeted. In Kyrgyzstan, the brother of the president who took office after the revolution of March 2005 has been accused of trying to frame an opposition leader by planting a heroin-filled wooden doll in his luggage.
The coup in Thailand poses the latest challenge to Bush's commitment to "ending tyranny in our world," as he vowed in his second inaugural address. Aides said yesterday that he did not mention the coup in his U.N. speech because they were still gathering information, but they did not explain why he said nothing later in the day as it became clear that the military had ousted Thaksin.
"We're disappointed in the coup," White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday aboard Air Force One on the return flight to Washington. "We hope those who mounted it will make good, and make good swiftly, on their promises to restore democracy."
Thaksin had been a U.S. favorite for years, but relations soured recently when he was accused of abusing power for profit and undermining the parliament, the opposition and the media. Although Thaksin won reelection handily last year, the opposition took to the streets this year to protest the sale of the prime minister's family holdings in a telecommunications and satellite company for $1.9 billion -- tax-free. Thaksin announced he would step down, but he stayed in office with elections scheduled for this fall.
The distaste for Thaksin may have colored the tepid U.S. response. "Nobody wants to go to bat for Thaksin. He's just an odious figure," said Michael A. McFaul, director of Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. "But there's the problem -- democracy's not about picking winners and losers, it's about defending institutions."
Lorne W. Craner, former assistant secretary of state under Bush and now president of the International Republican Institute, agreed that U.S. concerns with Thaksin did not justify a coup. "You can't sanction a coup just because you don't like the guy if you're going to stand up for democracy," he said. "It's unconstitutional."