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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)

Such sweeping rhetoric might have generated objections from the professional diplomats at the State Department who normally review presidential addresses. "That's why you don't show them the speech," Bartlett explained.

Instead, the Bush team consulted conservative scholars. Gerson, Bartlett, Karl Rove, Peter Wehner and other aides met at the White House on Jan. 10, 2005, with a group of academics. Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested that Bush promise to work toward "ending tyranny" by a date certain in 20 or 25 years. Some scoffed, but Gerson liked the idea.

The group adjourned to lunch in the White House mess, where, Gaddis later recalled in a lecture, Rove recommended the "chocolate freedom tart," a French desert renamed during the Iraq invasion. In the end, Gerson and other aides married Sharansky's idea of promoting democracy and Gaddis's idea of ending tyranny, although they set no target date and described it as the task of generations.

Other presidents had promoted liberty or human rights, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. But none had gone as far as Bush. "Rhetorically, nobody, including even Ronald Reagan, devoted more words in a major speech to this objective than George W. Bush," said Michael McFaul, head of Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Just hours before Bush arrived at the Capitol to take the oath and deliver his inaugural speech, Ukraine's Supreme Court rejected the losing candidate's appeal. The Orange Revolution had succeeded. It seemed the start of more to come.

An Ideal Is Tested

The days after the speech were heady. Eight million Iraqis went to the polls to elect an interim parliament, their purple-stained fingers a global symbol of emerging democracy. A political assassination in Lebanon triggered demonstrations known as the Cedar Revolution that toppled a pro-Syrian government and forced Damascus to end a three-decade occupation. And protests over a stolen election in Kyrgyzstan ousted another entrenched leader in the Tulip Revolution.

"There was this sort of euphoria," recalled Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, which promotes democracy worldwide.

Bush and his team tried to demonstrate their commitment. The president met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia for a tense discussion about the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent. And when Egypt arrested opposition leader Ayman Nour, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to Cairo. Two weeks later, Egypt released Nour.

The most serious test came in May, when Uzbekistan, a U.S. ally, massacred hundreds of protesters in the town of Andijan. The Pentagon, which maintained a base in Uzbekistan, resisted making a strenuous protest, but even the restrained criticism provoked Uzbekistan enough to expel U.S. troops. It was the first tangible price paid for the focus on freedom.

But it was all ad hoc. "There was no blueprint here," said Joshua Muravchik, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who serves on Rice's democracy advisory panel. "No one knew how to do this. People at the State Department felt they were groping in the dark."

At the White House, aides that summer tried to create a formula. An interagency group divided nations into three categories: newly democratic with weak institutions, such as Ukraine and Georgia; authoritarian with reformist tendencies, such as Pakistan; and reform-resistant, such as Belarus and Uzbekistan. Altogether, they identified 49 countries for attention.

But funding did not track those priorities. Bush's budget slashed money for democracy programs in Russia and the former Soviet Union, where civil society was in retreat. And some officials tried to redefine existing development projects as democracy promotion -- road construction counts, they argued, because voters need to reach polling stations.

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