The Imperiled Presidency Frustrated Ambition

As Democracy Push Falters, Bush Feels Like a 'Dissident'

In December, President Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Natan Sharansky, whose book helped inspire the president's pro-democracy initiatives.
In December, President Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Natan Sharansky, whose book helped inspire the president's pro-democracy initiatives. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

By the time he arrived in Prague in June for a democracy conference, President Bush was frustrated. He had committed his presidency to working toward the goal of "ending tyranny in our world," yet the march of freedom seemed stalled. Just as aggravating was the sense that his own government was not committed to his vision.

As he sat down with opposition leaders from authoritarian societies around the world, he gave voice to his exasperation. "You're not the only dissident," Bush told Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leader in the resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I too am a dissident in Washington. Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change. It seems that Mubarak succeeded in brainwashing them."

If he needed more evidence, he would soon get it. In his speech that day, Bush vowed to order U.S. ambassadors in unfree nations to meet with dissidents and boasted that he had created a fund to help embattled human rights defenders. But the State Department did not send out the cable directing ambassadors to sit down with dissidents until two months later. And to this day, not a nickel has been transferred to the fund he touted.

Two and a half years after Bush pledged in his second inaugural address to spread democracy around the world, the grand project has bogged down in a bureaucratic and geopolitical morass, in the view of many activists, officials and even White House aides. Many in his administration never bought into the idea, and some undermined it, including his own vice president. The Iraq war has distracted Bush and, in some quarters, discredited his aspirations. And while he focuses his ire on bureaucracy, Bush at times has compromised the idealism of that speech in the muddy reality of guarding other U.S. interests.

The story of how a president's vision is translated into thorny policy is a classic Washington tale of politics, inertia, rivalries and funding battles -- and a case study in the frustrated ambition of a besieged presidency. Bush says his goal of "ending tyranny" will take many generations, and he aims to institutionalize it as U.S. policy no matter who follows him in the White House. And for all the difficulties of the moment, it may yet, as he hopes, see fruition down the road.

At this point, though, democracy promotion has become so identified with an unpopular president that candidates running to succeed him are running away from it. At a recent debate, they rushed to disavow it. "I'm not a carbon copy of President Bush," one said. Another ventured that "maybe going to elections so quickly is a mistake." A third, asked if he agreed with Bush's vision, replied, "Absolutely not, because I don't think we can force people to accept our way of life, our way of government."

And those were the Republicans.

Seeds of a New Policy

Bush did not wait long after reelection in November 2004 to begin mapping his second term. Relaxing from the burdens of the campaign, he leafed through galleys of a book given to him by Tom A. Bernstein, a friend and former partner in the Texas Rangers. The book, "The Case for Democracy," was a manifesto by Natan Sharansky, the Soviet refusenik, Israeli politician and favorite of neoconservatives.

Bush found it so riveting, he asked aides to invite Sharansky to visit. The next day, nine days after the election, the author was ushered into the Oval Office. He and Bush talked about the nature of democracy and how to advance it. Bush was struck by a metaphor in the book comparing a tyrannical state to a soldier pointing a gun at a prisoner until his arms tire, he lowers the gun and the captive escapes. "Not only did he read it, he felt it," Sharansky said last week.

Within weeks, according to several aides, Bush called his chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, to discuss using his second inaugural address to "plant a flag" for democracy around the world. Bush had made democracy in the Middle East a cornerstone of his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but now he wanted to broaden the goal.

Enthusiasm within the White House grew with events in far-off Ukraine. Even as the speech was being developed, hundreds of thousands of orange-clad Ukrainians protested a stolen election and, as in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, forced the old regime out in a new vote the day after Christmas. That had a big impact in the West Wing. "You do get influenced by the season," said former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "At the time, there were the Georgias of the world . . . all those revolutions. There was a momentum behind it."

A mission to spread democracy would also offer an ideological underpinning to the "war on terror" beyond hunting al-Qaeda. "To have an optimistic, forward-leaning, idealistic call, we felt, would be more inviting for people on both sides of the aisle in this country and with governments that may be skeptical overseas," Bartlett said.


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