Closed-Door Openness at Foggy Bottom

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Those wondering why the Bush administration has failed to spread democracy across the globe might find a clue in yesterday's meeting of the State Department's "Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion."

About a third of the way through the meeting, and not long after Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky boasted to the television cameras that "our entire session today is open to the public" and attended by the press, State Department officials ordered reporters to leave.

"This is the way they wanted it to happen, and this is the way it's going to be," explained department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos. "They seem to have wanted you all out."

The spokesman declined to say who "they" were. "You got a problem?" Gallegos challenged. "Write a letter."

So much for promoting the values of a liberal democracy.

The Iraq debacle has dashed President Bush's dreams of Middle Eastern democracy and blackened America's reputation across the globe. Vladimir Putin is reversing democratic gains in Russia, while free elections have had decidedly undesirable results in places such as the Palestinian territories. "We see democracy being hijacked all over the place," committee member Chester Crocker told his colleagues.

Confronting such inhospitable times, the democracy-promotion committee was having some problems of its own. The chairman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, couldn't make it to Foggy Bottom and had to participate by phone; a rainstorm left her stuck in New Jersey. Another committee member, Freedom House's Jennifer Windsor, complained that the recommendations Slaughter presented to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't accurately reflect the committee's deliberations.

Then there was the question of what to say about Iraq, whose democracy has deteriorated to the point that it no longer qualifies to attend meetings of the Community of Democracies. The committee resolved to deal with this issue by avoiding it. In the three-hour meeting -- at least the portion of it reporters were allowed to witness -- Iraq got only three passing references.

To help fill the time without talking about Iraq, the committee members took turns bathing Rice in praise.

"You had no notes. You just spoke honestly to us. I was very impressed," said Mark Palmer.

"I have to say, as I listen to you, Madam Secretary, that something comes through that's very genuine," said Brian Atwood.

"Very comprehensive and coherent," commented Carl Gershman.

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