U.S. President George W. Bush painted himself in Reaganesque hues yesterday, declaring that a free Iraq will be a watershed event in a "global democratic revolution" in which dictatorships around the Middle East and elsewhere will crumble. He compared that to how communist regimes collapsed under the crush of Cold War pressure from the United States under former President Ronald Reagan.
Washington, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Facing criticism over Iraq in the media and from political rivals, U.S. President Bush went on the offensive yesterday, saying a free Iraq will become the start of what he called a "global democratic revolution."
In a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group that champions democratic values around the world, Bush sought to portray the U.S. effort in Iraq and the war on terrorism as part of a larger battle for democracy over tyranny.
"The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world. It would increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region," Bush said. "Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will set forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation."
Bush likened the bid to encourage democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere to U.S. efforts under President Reagan to stifle Soviet communism. The stakes are as high for the United States now as they were then, Bush said. "There is a great challenge today in the Middle East. In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has, and I quote, 'barely reached the Arab states.'
"They continue, 'This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.' The freedom deficit they described has terrible consequences for the people of the Middle East and for the world," Bush said.
With U.S. troops dying virtually every day in Iraq, questions are being raised by many in the U.S. media and Congress whether the war has been worth the price. And public-opinion polls show Americans waning in their support of Bush's handling of the war.
Analysts say that Bush, who spoke just before signing into law a bill to provide about $87 billion for military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has fallen in the polls in part because of problems in rebuilding Iraq.
Patrick Basham is a domestic political analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington research group. Basham told RFE/RL that the idea of spreading democracy -- although not a new message from the administration -- until now has taken a backseat to fighting terrorism and waging war in Iraq.
Basham said the new emphasis on democracy is in part dictated by political circumstances, including next year's presidential election.
"It's a polishing of an old spin. It's always been part of the strategy -- or you might say the rationale -- for the intervention in Iraq, that if we went in, if we took out a terrorist-type regime, that we would not only make the world safer, but we would make the world freer," Basham said. "That's a message which has not always been stressed, but now [the administration is] looking for some good news."
Basham said that by likening his efforts to what Americans widely believe was Reagan's successful stand against the Soviets, Bush is seeking to regain control over the negative messages being heard about Iraq, as well as gain the upper hand with voters.
While Basham said Bush likely believes in the idea of a democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East, the president's message is also good politics. According to Basham, "President Bush wants to go into 2004 [the November election] with a positive message that will appeal to people across party lines, that says to the country: 'I've got a vision. You may not agree with it completely, but I know where I want to take this country, I know what our foreign policy should look like. I know what I want the world to look like down the road. And if you support me, we can make progress toward that goal.'"
But as Bush called for democratic change in the Middle East, he also acknowledged that the United States shares some of the historical blame for the region's lack of freedom and progress today.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because, in the long-run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."
But Bush said there is a trend in the Middle East pointing toward a future brightened by freedom.
Insisting that democracy is compatible with Islam, Bush cited small steps of progress toward representative government made in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan. "In Iran, the demand for democracy is strong and broad," Bush said. "As we saw last month when thousands gathered to welcome home Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy."
Despite Bush's new emphasis on democracy and human rights in the Middle East, some question how much credibility Washington has in the region on the issue, precisely for the reason Bush cited -- 60 years of U.S. support for undemocratic governments in the Middle East, including key allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, yet some U.S. commentators are asking whether Bush is prepared to tie further aid to Cairo and other authoritarian governments to progress on rights and democracy.
Basham added that there is another problem in the Middle East, where years of U.S. intervention contribute to a perception that Washington, even if it says it wants to do good, is just meddling in others' business. That, he said, "is the problem that the only superpower in the world comes up against whenever it decides that it needs to make things better elsewhere. You're always going to get this reaction of one, 'Keep out of our affairs'; and two, 'Who are you to ride the moral high horse when it comes to telling us how we should govern ourselves?'"