IT WAS DAMAGING enough when President Bush misread Russian President Vladimir Putin early in his administration and then for years refused to acknowledge Russia's downward spiral toward authoritarianism. Now, rather than admit error, Mr. Bush apparently has decided to blame the Russian people -- and in so doing he is undermining a central tenet of his presidency.
Mr. Bush has spent the past six years insisting that no country, culture or religion is inhospitable to democracy. Experts used to declare that "Asian values" precluded self-rule, he would lecture, but Japan and then many other nations proved those experts wrong. Experts would say that democracy and Islam were incompatible, he noted, but Turkey proved them wrong, too. "No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them," he confidently declared in his first State of the Union address after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2004, he told graduates of the Air Force Academy that people "share this vision of dignity and freedom in every culture because liberty is not the invention of Western culture, liberty is the deepest need and hope of all humanity." In his second inaugural address, he scoffed at those who "have questioned the global appeal of liberty."
But at a White House news conference Wednesday, Mr. Bush questioned "whether or not it's possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority." In so doing, he echoed the laziest thinking of cultural determinists -- those who said that South Korea could never be democratic because of its Confucian culture, and were proved wrong; who said that Indonesia could never be democratic because of its Muslim faith, and were proved wrong; and who say today that Russia will never escape its czar-serf history.
Will the Russia experts also be proved wrong someday? No one can be sure. But it would be reasonable to point out that, one decade after the fall of communism, Russia had taken imperfect but impressive strides toward nurturing a free press, a vibrant political scene, a government with checks and balances, and a growing civil society. Then Mr. Putin, whose soul Mr. Bush famously vouched for, consciously chose to lead the nation in a different direction, one that resonated with his KGB past. Mr. Bush and his foreign policy advisers denied this trend long after it had become apparent to almost everyone else.
Now, by portraying the neo-Soviet backsliding as inevitable, as somehow genetic, Mr. Bush seeks to exonerate himself. But that's not the worst of it; after all, his influence would have been limited in the best of circumstances. Mr. Bush's musings about Russian DNA serve to vindicate Mr. Putin's own justifications for stifling freedom. Worst, just as Mr. Bush has abandoned the champions of democracy he once encouraged in Egypt, so his dismissal of Russia's genes betrays the Russians who have struggled and sacrificed -- and will, one day, struggle and sacrifice again -- to bring "dignity and freedom" to their homeland.