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Briefing: Democracy: The One Thing Bush Got Right?

Carl Gershman (RFE/RL) May 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) --  U.S. President George W. Bush was right in committing to support democracy around the world -- including in the Middle East -- but the goal is a long-term one and there are still questions on how best to achieve it.

Those were the views of two experts who debated the proposal "Democracy: The One Thing Bush Got Right" at a briefing at RFE/RL in Prague.

One was Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, which works to strengthen democratic institutions around the world.

"Bush got right the objective, [though] he was not the first one to annunciate that objective," Gershman said. "But what we're still working on is how best to do this in some very difficult situations over the long term, and how we can have a policy over the long term that will be effective, that will not over-promise and create expectations that are unrealistic...That is a long-term thing, it cannot be achieved as a short-term objective of U.S. foreign policy."

The entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

Gershman contrasted major democracy speeches by two presidents: Ronald Reagan's address of June 1982, where he predicted the downfall of communism, and Bush's speech to the NED in 2003, where he outlined his administration's goal of supporting democracy in the Middle East.

"If you look at it historically you'll say, 'Boy, Reagan did great and Bush has had a lot of trouble,'" Gershman said. But he added that, whereas Reagan spoke about countries that were "ripe for democracy," Bush chose a region -- the Middle East -- that was not.

Still, Gershman said, the Middle East has made some progress in the last few years. Even the fact that Islamists have entered politics in some countries means they've shown some acceptance of the notion of electoral democracy, he said.

"Democracy is not something that can be exported and it's not seomthing that can be imposed. It has to come from within. It's like a plant, we can provide some water, we can provide some sunshine, but it has to come from within," Gershman said. "In that regard, the question is, 'Is it possible in the Middle East?' The answer is 'Yes, but it will take time.'"

The other speaker at the briefing was John O'Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

He described Bush's second inaugural speech as "probably the purest distillation of the idealistic case for America spreading democracy in the world that you could come across."

In that January 2005 address, Bush said it was the policy of the United States to support the growth of democratic movements and institutions around the world, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny.

But O'Sullivan noted it was significant that members of Bush's administration the following day explained this was a long-term goal.

"The president did oversell the policy, and the fact his officials had to fan out after his last speech and explain there was some fine-print qualifying to the idealistic statement of principles is a demonstration of that," O'Sullivan said.

John O'Sullivan (RFE/RL)

"I also think it was mistake to suggest that critics of democracy promotion somehow had a genetic contempt for Arabs. which was quite false. It was simply a statement that there was simply an anxiety on the part of some skeptics that the cultural conditions for democracy had not yet been reached in the Arab world."

Gershman ended on a positive note, seeing hope even amid what he called a "backlash against democracy promotion" in countries like Russia and Iran.

One reason for the backlash, he said, was that these countries were "terribly fearful" of democratic revolutions.

"It's a dangerous moment," he said, "but a hopeful message that the prospect of democracy in these countries is very real."