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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)

"They don't want to do it, not because they're evil but because they're development people," said a top official who works on democracy issues. "They want to inoculate children. They want to build schools. And to do that, they have to work with existing regimes. And you're getting in their way."

Defiance of Bush's mandate could be subtle or brazen. The official recalled a conversation with a State Department bureaucrat over a democracy issue.

"It's our policy," the official said.

"What do you mean?" the bureaucrat asked.

"Read the president's speech," the official said.

"Policy is not what the president says in speeches," the bureaucrat replied. "Policy is what emerges from interagency meetings."

And so the Arab Spring proved short-lived both in Washington and abroad. By August came the pushback, as Russian officials warned authoritarian governments around the world that Bush wanted to foment revolutions as in Ukraine and Georgia. Nongovernmental organizations promoting civil society were harassed and even kicked out.

In September, Mubarak held Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election, but it turned out to be an exercise in preserving power. The manipulated contest delivered Mubarak 88.6 percent of the vote to 7 percent for Nour, his main challenger. By Christmas, Nour was back behind bars, sentenced to five years in prison.

In Foreign Vote, a Turning Point

In a conference room at State Department headquarters, Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley sat down with aides that winter to consider a pressing question: Should Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2006 be canceled?

Israeli leaders, including Tzipi Livni, now the foreign minister, had implored Bush advisers to not let the vote proceed. Hamas, deemed a terrorist group by the United States, could easily win, they warned. Even Sharansky, the president's apostle, urged the Americans to postpone the vote, arguing that democracy is about building institutions and civil society, not just holding elections.

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the Americans that his Fatah party needed the vote for credibility and it had to include his opposition. Rice and Hadley heeded his wishes. "We didn't think that postponing the elections would have solved any problems," said Philip D. Zelikow, who was Rice's counselor at the time and attended the meeting. "You would have been conceding Fatah's illegitimacy."

It was, they thought, a test of Bush's democracy agenda. What was more important, the principle or the outcome? The elections went forward and Hamas won big. Now Bush was stuck with an avowed enemy of Israel governing the Palestinian territories. And critics saw it as proof that the president's democracy agenda was dangerously naïve. "They were saying, 'We told you so,' " recalled Thomas Carothers, director of the democracy project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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