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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)

Many now see that election as a turning point that emboldened internal resistance and left democracy advocates gun-shy. More battles ensued. White House aides drafting a National Security Strategy in March 2006 included language decrying Russian backsliding on democracy. Senior Russia adviser Thomas E. Graham Jr. tried to soften it, an official said. The fight went all the way to Bush, who kept the wording.

Less than two months later, Vice President Cheney went to Lithuania to deliver the toughest U.S. indictment of Putin's leadership. But the next day, Cheney flew to oil-rich Kazakhstan and embraced its autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, with not a word of criticism. The juxtaposition made the talk of democracy look phony and provided ammunition to the Kremlin.

Another test came the same month. Bush was regularly meeting with dissidents from around the world, and he was set to host several Chinese religious rights activists. But Clark T. Randt Jr., a Bush friend serving as ambassador to China, "threw a fit," an official said, warning it would damage relations with Beijing. Bush aides compromised by moving the meeting from the Oval Office to the White House residence. (A spokeswoman said Randt was concerned that one particular invitee "was inappropriate.")

By fall, the compromises grew more serious. When tanks rolled through Bangkok in a military coup overthrowing Thailand's elected prime minister, Bush was at the United Nations delivering a speech on democracy. But Bush mustered no outrage on behalf of the ousted Thai leader and left town without seeing him, even though he was also at the United Nations. The National Security Council pushed for a stronger response, but the State Department and the office of the vice president resisted. "OVP has this little-girl crush on strongmen," said an official on the losing side.

In the end, Bush suspended $24 million in military aid only to watch China replace it. By May, the U.S. Navy was conducting exercises with the Thai military. And yesterday, the Thai military pushed through a new constitution limiting the role of elected officials once civilian rule is restored.

Fitful Progress and Frustration

Sharansky invited Bush to Prague this spring hoping to jump-start the democracy agenda. Bush advisers saw it as a chance to reaffirm his vision of ending tyranny. "Some have said that qualifies me as a 'dissident president,' " Bush told the gathering. "If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, I wear that title with pride."

But his frustration came through during his private talk with Ibrahim, who recalled it to the Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustour, in an account White House aides endorsed.

Bush aides said they are trying to institutionalize the goal of the inaugural address. They created a new democracy unit in the intelligence community. They helped start a U.N. democracy fund and other international forums. They made political rights and rule of law criteria for aid under the Millennium Challenge anti-poverty program.

Most significantly, they restructured how U.S. foreign aid is determined, developing a complicated formula to evaluate each country's state of freedom and target money accordingly. Overall, they say they have doubled democracy funding since 2001.

Yet the latest administration budget cut millions of dollars for human rights and democracy programs in places such as Burma, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The administration allotted less democracy money for Russia than for Liberia, according to Freedom House. Even better-funded programs in Iraq have relied on Congress to provide money the administration would not.

"The promotion of democracy has been institutionalized in the State Department," said Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky. "There has been very significant change. At the same time, there are areas where we can change more, and we will."

Others aren't as sanguine. "If the president was announcing a grand strategy, it doesn't look like his goals are being attained," Zelikow said.

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