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

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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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