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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)

Lorne W. Craner, Bush's first-term assistant secretary of state for democracy and now president of the International Republican Institute, which advocates democracy, said: "I don't think the bureaucracy was reorganized to follow up on the policy. The architecture has not yet been configured to realize the president's promise."

Many of the original architects of Bush's vision are gone. Gerson, Bartlett and Wehner have left the White House, and Rove will by the end of the month. Deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams has been perhaps the most forceful advocate of democracy promotion within the administration, yet he has less time to work on it these days because he also oversees Middle East policy.

And every day brings a new test. As Bush was in Prague, aides debated an upcoming White House visit by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. Hanoi was arresting political opponents, and the White House "came this close" to canceling the visit, one official said. Instead, it decided to demonstrate its pique by refusing to issue a joint statement with Triet and not letting him stay at Blair House.

An ongoing debate involves the Kazakh leader, whom Cheney called "my friend." Nazarbayev wants to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections. Some Bush aides are appalled that voting would be overseen by a man who arranged his reelection with 91 percent of the vote and changed the constitution in May to allow himself to remain in office for life. Just this weekend, the OSCE monitored parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan and concluded that, while there was progress, they did not meet international standards.

But some officials worry about alienating a friend in a region where Russia is reasserting influence. Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher has argued for giving Nazarbayev more time to reform. The discord has gotten so personal that rivals have dubbed him Boucherbayev. In an interview, Boucher said those promoting democracy are not responsible for the broader picture. "We have to work on an overall relationship," he said. "The issue of democracy is not to be able to denounce people. The issue is to make progress."

Still, after an invigorating start in 2005, progress has been harder to find. Among those worried about the project is Sharansky, whose book so inspired Bush. "I give him an A for bringing the idea and maybe a C for implementation," said Sharansky, now chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Israel. "There is a gap between what he says and what the State Department does," and he is not consistent enough.

The challenge Bush faced, Sharansky added, was to bring Washington together behind his goal.

"It didn't happen," he said. "And that's the real tragedy."


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