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To fight terror, Bush plays democracy card

But his rhetoric calling for reforms may offend some key allies.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2002


Everyone agreed the intolerant, antiwomen – and pro-Al Qaeda – Taliban had to go.

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But then President Bush decided Yasser Arafat must bow out in favor of a democratic Palestinian Authority. Next, the long-held US objective of ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein began progressing to a point of no return, with replacement by a democratic regime one of the goals. Last week, the Bush administration gathered representatives of the "democratic" Iraqi opposition in Washington to demonstrate its commitment to a new Iraq.

In this atmosphere, some people are even making noises about the royal regime in Saudi Arabia, demanding that the US step up pressure for change there.

A pattern appears to be emerging here: The Bush White House is increasingly playing a democracy card – at least rhetorically – as one of its moves in the war on terrorism, Mideast experts say. But as it proceeds, they add, an administration that can prefer things in black and white faces a growing dilemma: how to treat key friendly – but not-so-democratic – regimes.

"The US has traditionally recognized that the nature of these regimes – in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, wherever – has been a major factor in the rise of Islamic extremism," says James Noyes, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., and a former Pentagon official involved in Mideast affairs. "But now that we're particularly concerned about that extremism, we're caught between advocating freedom to address the problem and demanding more oppression to round up the extremists."

What seems clear is that White House rhetoric and America's international war on terrorism have made a connection between democracy and the long-term rooting out of Islamic extremism. What is less certain is whether the US will take this connection a step further – shifting from a traditional preoccupation with regional stability and access to oil, particularly in the Middle East, to pressing friend and foe alike in the Arab and Muslim worlds for democratic governance.

"The US is generally holding that by promoting democracy, you can resolve the problem of containing support for Al Qaeda," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert in Islamic extremism at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "But the US motivation is not to promote democracy, it's to end support for terrorism."

For some, President Bush is moving coherently on a strategy of promoting democratic, human rights-respecting regimes free of terrorism's taint in the region.

"In the weeks after Sept. 11, the president began thinking through the idea that the only real solution to rogue states tied up with [weapons] proliferation is developing liberal democratic states you can depend on," says Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative Washington think tank.

For example, he says, "Bush's own rhetoric eventually forced him to reevaluate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from this perspective."

But others see a hodgepodge of moves that simply cloak an overarching interest in security and antiterrorism concerns.