Accessibility links

2005 In Review: Bush's Democracy Agenda Sees Mixed Results

  • Robert McMahon --> Scene from Andijon (file photo) (epa) President George W. Bush launched his second term with an inauguration speech that dedicated U.S. foreign policy to spreading freedom and democracy in the world, and Washington duly set in motion new efforts to stir democratic change, especially in the Middle East. But, so far, the results have been mixed, with developments in the former Soviet Union highlighting the challenges facing the administration.

Washington, 22 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The promotion of democracy and human rights has long been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

But President George W. Bush signaled a dramatic change in emphasis in the speech that marked the start of his second term in January.

Exporting Democracy

Bush called freedom the "permanent hope of mankind" and linked the expansion of freedom and democracy with U.S. national security. From now on, the president said, his administration would press governments everywhere, including its partners, to initiate democratic reforms. “We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people,” he declared. “America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators. They are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed."

In the year that followed, the United States worked with France to weaken Syria's hold on Lebanese politics, lent its support to elections in the Palestinian authority, pressed Egypt to allow multiparty elections, and was the chief guardian of two parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum in Iraq.

Billions Of Dollars

Bush has increased funding for reform-oriented organizations like the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, which helps strengthen democratic institutions in more than 90 countries. He has also continued to set aside billions of dollars in economic aid for countries committed to reforms aimed at improving governance.

The administration's democracy promotion effort in the Middle East marks a clear change in policy, says Thomas Carothers, head of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent U.S.-based think tank.

Elsewhere, though, no major change in U.S. policies followed Bush's speech, Carothers says.

"The actual balance of U.S. policy in terms of where the United States promotes democracy and where it doesn't hasn't actually changed all that much this year, in that currently we see the United States pushing for democracy in certain regions and certain countries and much less so -- or not at all -- in others, usually where the United States has a friendly relationship with a nondemocratic regime based on common economic and security interests,"he said.

He cited Russia and China as examples of countries that Washington is not pressing heavily for democratic reforms.

Democracy And Energy

In Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Bush administration has sought to encourage reforms, buoyed in its efforts by the popular revolts which brought to power reformist governments in Georgia and Ukraine and ousted the Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian president, Askar Akaev. In this region, U.S. officials stressed in 2005 that democracy promotion was as important as its energy and security concerns.

But it is in this part of the world that the administration's democracy agenda has encountered some of its toughest challenges.

Increased Resistance

Ukraine's Orange Revolution caused many of its neighbors to stiffen opposition to democratization efforts, says Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

"One of the things the U.S. policy and the U.S. support for democracy is coming up against is the resistance of countries like Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe to anything similar to what happened in Ukraine,” he notes. “They've seen the Orange Revolution as a warning signal, and they are taking measures to try to block any kind of democratic change in the future."

Uzbekistan posed a particular problem for U.S. policymakers, after Uzbek troops killed hundreds of civilians in the city of Andijon in May. The administration had established a dialogue on democratic reforms with the regime in Tashkent while at the same time maintaining a partnership on antiterror measures, including the use by U.S. troops of a base in Karshi-Khanabad.

Reports of a massacre brought only a delayed condemnation from Washington. Eventually, the United States did step up calls for an independent investigation of the incident and assisted Uzbeks who had fled the unrest to reach third countries. The response by the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov was to end an agreement allowing U.S. forces to use a military base and to foster toward closer ties with Russia and China.

Karimov's moves were noted by other autocratic leaders in the region, says Richard Giragosian, an independent analyst specializing in the Caucasus. Renewed recognition of the region's importance to Washington may have emboldened Azerbaijani leaders to manipulate parliamentary elections in November, despite U.S. calls for a free and fair vote.

Stability Or Democracy?

There has long been a tension in U.S. foreign policy between emphasizing stability or promoting democratization.

However, Mitchell Reiss, the State Department's director of policy planning in Bush's first term, believes that the administration has clearly signaled that democratization is now its top priority. He says, though, determining how such a policy should be pursued requires an understanding of the conditions for change in each individual country. "What may be right for Egypt may not be right for Pakistan, for example. Or there may be two different approaches that you need to take. So we should expect that different countries are going to be moving down this path at different speeds, with different intensities. But the point,” he argues, “is that everybody now is starting to move in this direction. Some of them are halting steps. Some of them are a little bit more of a sprint. But I think the message is pretty clear that this is the way that the world is now going to be moving."

Reiss maintains that the Bush administration should be more creative in nurturing democratic impulses in states like Iran. Such efforts should, he says, include more unofficial contacts with Iranians. "We need to try and promote more 'track two' diplomacy and take Iranians out of their country and have them interact with Americans and Europeans,” he contends. “And from time to time we need to identify those policy areas where our interests with the Iranians overlap. We overlap with counternarcotics in Afghanistan, with border controls with Iraq, with maritime security in the Persian Gulf."

Such engagement may be especially important in view of Iran's potential to be a spoiler in the Bush administration's high-profile democracy campaign in Iraq and given Iran’s support for the Hizbollah militia movement in Lebanon.