Washington, 30 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In his brief speech at the White House, Bush called the January 30 parliamentary elections in Iraq a model for other states in the Middle East.
"By claiming their own freedom, the Iraqis are transforming the region, and they're doing it by example and inspiration, rather than by conquest and domination," Bush said. "The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could -- making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East."
Bush's statements came as not only Iraqis but also the Palestinians have held elections, and when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is proposing competitive presidential elections. And many Lebanese are demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces before elections in May so they can take full control of their own political destiny.
"But"I think a lot of what we've seen lately wouldn't have happened if President Bush hadn't got out in front in calling for democratic reforms in the Middle East." -- James Phillips, Heritage Foundation
Bush's speech came one day after the State Department released a major human rights and democracy report. It says the U.S. government has promoted freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere with persuasion and sometimes sanctions to help improve the records of some countries.
Bush's remarks certainly could be seen as a way to prod the Iraqi parliament into action. Lawmakers in Baghdad have been stalled in their effort to choose a speaker -- something they must accomplish before they can begin drafting a constitution.
But Bush also was speaking with evident pride in helping establish -- albeit through war -- democratic institutions in a country that for three decades operated under Saddam Hussein's authoritarian rule. And his words strongly suggest that Iraq has influenced calls for democracy elsewhere in the Middle East.
Can Bush take this credit?
Unequivocally yes, according to James Phillips, who specializes in foreign policy and security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research institute in Washington.
Phillips tells RFE/RL that even before the war in Iraq, Bush was urging democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority -- reforms that weren't realized until the death of its president, Yasser Arafat. Now, Phillips says, it is up to the Palestinians and the Iraqis to follow up on those elections by establishing democratic institutions.
"I think the Bush administration deserves some credit for what's going on, although ultimately it's the responsibility of the people in the Middle East to build democracy," Phillips says. "But I think a lot of what we've seen lately wouldn't have happened if President Bush hadn't got out in front in calling for democratic reforms in the Middle East."
Phillips acknowledges that Bush didn't invent the idea of democracy in the region. And he says that despite all the work the State Department has done to nurture democratic movements, the people of the Middle East were influenced most by televised coverage of the Iraqis defying threats of violence to vote.
Murhaf Jouejati agrees. Jouejati -- a native of Syria -- is a regional specialist at the Middle East Institute, another private Washington think tank. He says that long before Bush became U.S. president in 2001, the people of the region were demanding reforms, if not democracy.
Jouejati tells RFE/RL that Bush can't claim all the credit for the democracy movements in the Middle East. For example, he says, when Bashar Assad assumed the presidency of Syria nearly a year before Bush was inaugurated, he quickly undertook economic and administrative reforms and -- to a lesser extent -- political reforms.
But like Phillips, Jouejati points to the compelling television footage -- not only of Iraqis voting but also of Ukrainians demanding the nullification of a rigged election.
"Certainly, some of the images that people in the area saw were powerful images: the images of Iraqis voting even as they were in the midst of violence; the images of Palestinians voting. With regard to Lebanon, the 'Cedar Revolution' that is taking place, I think is largely the product of emulating what happened in Ukraine and the power of satellite television."
After viewing such compelling television, Jouejati says, the people of the Middle East cannot turn away from their demands for self-determination. If Bush wants to take at least some credit for this, he says, then so be it.