Los Angeles Times
June 5, 2005
WASHINGTON — President Bush's ambitious vision of global democratic reform has begun to dominate the administration's foreign affairs agenda, in some cases pushing aside urgent international issues.
So far, the president's plan has been driven mainly by high-level rhetoric, symbolic gestures and a handful of modestly funded development programs. But collectively, this mix has started to shift the focus in relations with key nations.
In the four months since Bush unveiled the approach in his second inaugural address, nearly every meeting with foreign officials and many of the changes taking place within the Bush administration, including several key appointments, has reflected the priority of expanding the boundaries of democracy.
By now, the presidential vision even has its own buzz phrase: "practical idealism," a reference to the policy's underlying premise that in a post-Sept. 11 world, America's national security is tied directly to the spread of free and open societies everywhere, including the Middle East.
Although few foreign policy specialists interviewed for this article questioned the president's personal sincerity, some dismissed his plan as little more than fantasy. Others expressed doubt that the U.S. had the credibility to advance such ambitious reforms — especially in the Islamic world.
Whatever the eventual outcome, there is evidence of initial effects.
"People in the Middle East already see it as a very powerful initiative," said Walter Russell Mead, an expert on America's role in the world at the Council on Foreign Relations. "A lot of people are beginning to wonder if American foreign policy isn't in the midst of a fundamental change."
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief got a taste of this change during his weeklong visit to Washington last month. Egypt is an important player in the Middle East peace process and a vital, if quiet, ally in the struggle to create stability in Iraq. But Nazief repeatedly was put on the defensive by questions on one topic: Egypt's plans for democratic reform.
Nazief said two pressing regional issues were largely left out of his May 18 visit with Bush: the unfolding crisis just to Egypt's south in the Darfur region of Sudan, and Syria's involvement in Lebanon.
The president and first lady have alternately criticized and cheered the Egyptian regime. During a trip to Cairo, Laura Bush praised a controversial draft law to create multi-candidate presidential elections, while Bush condemned beatings of government opponents.
Despite the administration's aggressive new effort to promote reform, formidable hurdles litter the path toward Bush's goal.
In the Middle East, America's poor image and more urgent strategic concerns, such as assuring the welfare of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, diminish the administration's leverage to induce reform. Closer to home, bureaucratic resistance within parts of the U.S. government that are skeptical of the agenda threaten to blunt the effect of existing pro-democracy initiatives.
More significant, the new emphasis on promoting democracy has launched policymakers on a journey with no clear path to their goal.
"What we want is a world of democratic, market-oriented countries," said Stephen Krasner, whose job as head of policy planning at the State Department is to direct the search for future external challenges that the country might face. "The big challenge is how to get there."
Such daunting tasks nurture considerable skepticism about Bush's vision.
"The simplistic notion that you talk a great deal about democracy and twist a few arms and it will somehow come magically on its own is absurd," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security advisor to President Carter.
None of the doubts, however, have visibly blunted the administration's zeal to press for reform. In the corridors of the State Department and Washington's many political think tanks, the talk is of "transformational diplomacy."
At the State Department, Krasner estimates he devotes about 75% of his time on how to extend the boundaries of democracy around the globe.
"We're working actively to find the most effective ways to accomplish this goal," he said.
Within the State Department, several jobs central to the push for democracy have been filled by people who have greater access to the upper levels of power.
Krasner, for example, was a faculty colleague of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Stanford. Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Elizabeth recently took over responsibility for a set of initiatives meant to promote private enterprise and democracy across the Middle East and North Africa.
Carlos Pascual, head of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, which was created last summer to help rebuild failing states as open societies, reports directly to Rice and also shares a Stanford connection.
Still, these programs remain modest in size. They also reportedly have become the focus of internal tensions, especially from the large U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, the country's main conduit for foreign assistance. Present and former department staff members say the development agency tends to view the newer programs as competitors.
USAID "is a disaster when it comes to what we're trying to do now," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid.
U.S. Embassy political officers, whose job is to keep relations with host governments as strong as possible, also reportedly question the wisdom of U.S. initiatives that aim to weaken an existing government's grip on power.
As the administration starts to reshape the bureaucratic machinery for its new top priority, Bush, Rice and others have begun to spread the message.
In his two meetings with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin since January, Bush publicly nudged the Russian leader to reverse what the U.S. views as a worrisome erosion of democracy in Moscow.
In public speeches, Bush has reeled off the names of such countries as Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan as proof of democracy's inevitable triumph and warned authoritarian rulers that they must change.
In the world of international diplomacy, words matter, experts say.
"Rhetoric is very important when you're trying to push political reform," said Kenneth Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental group with ties to the Democratic Party that promotes the expansion of democracy overseas. "It influences the debate in these countries."
But with growing frequency, America's nudges are more than verbal.
Bush's itinerary for his visit to Moscow last month, for example, served as a signal in itself. He also scheduled stops in Latvia and Georgia — both former Soviet republics that are now democratic nations struggling to stay free of Russia's orbit.
A few weeks earlier, Rice turned the spotlight on Russia's neighbor Belarus, a country she referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship," by holding a high-profile meeting with dissidents opposed to President Alexander G. Lukashenko. During the meeting in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, dissidents said Rice all but offered them a plan on how to press for political reform.
At one level, experts such as Moises Naim, editor of the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine, acknowledge that Bush has been effective in presenting a series of recent displays of "people power" in countries such as Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan as part of the inevitable march of history.
But he and others say the administration is merely "picking the low-hanging fruit." They argue that the real test of Bush's commitment to change will come in strategically important nations, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where the political stakes are far higher for the U.S.
In one such country — Egypt — initial results have been mixed, experts say.
Bush openly prodded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his State of the Union speech in February to lead by example in spreading democracy in his region. Shortly afterward, when Rice canceled a trip to Cairo after the arrest of an Egyptian opposition leader, Mubarak announced plans for a competitive presidential election to be held in September.
Although cautiously welcomed by the Bush administration as a step forward and praised by the first lady, the resulting draft law published last month was denounced by regional experts and Mubarak's political opponents. Middle East specialists said restrictions placed on potential candidates outside Mubarak's ruling party were so draconian that the law was in effect meaningless.
"It's a joke," said Walker, who now heads the Middle East Institute, a privately funded political think tank in Washington.
Some specialists also say the administration reacted more cautiously than many European countries to public uprisings against repressive governments in the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan in March and Uzbekistan last month. One reason: They both house U.S. military bases that are crucial to supporting American forces in Afghanistan.
Administration officials dealing with the democracy issue stress that "prudence" is necessary in pushing nations to become more open politically, but they insist that the political will to move ahead is there because there is no other choice.
History, they say, has shown that politically stable allies who stifle basic freedoms may provide short-term security but pose serious dangers in the long term.
"We thought stability would bring us security," said Krasner, of the State Department. "Well, stability has not brought us security, so we have to think about how to move these regimes to another position, and our security is dependent on that."