To fight terror, Bush plays democracy card
But his rhetoric calling for reforms may offend some key allies.
WASHINGTON — Everyone agreed the intolerant, antiwomen and pro-Al Qaeda Taliban had to go.
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.
"It would be wonderful if the administration were applying a consistent policy of promoting and defending democracy in the Arab world, but that is not at all the case," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
He points to the US government's "almost complete silence" after the conviction in Egypt last month of Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent reform advocate, on what international human rights advocates say were trumped-up forgery and bribery charges.
If the US wants to be heard as a power that understands how lack of freedoms engender terrorism, Mr. Gerges says it's not working. "The dominant narrative in the region is that for the US, democracy is a gimmick it uses to stay in the bed it's made with authoritarian regimes," he concludes after two months of travel in the region.
Some observers have questioned US motives for demanding that the Palestinians practice full democracy before they achieve statehood. "The demands seems so impossible that they raise the suspicion that it's just a device to get the US out of the business of arbitrating between the Israelis and Palestinians," Mr. Noyes of the Hoover Institution says.
Mr. Gunaratna from St. Andrews says that the "classic example" of the US placing security above principles is in Central Asia and in particular in Uzbekistan, where thousands of suspected Islamists most of whom are regime opponents languish in prison.
At the same time, he says, the US should be putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to democratize so Saudis don't feel that their only hope for reform is through extremists like Osama bin Laden.
Once it was learned that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, that country's incubation of Islamic terrorists took the spotlight. US-Saudi relations faced gale-force winds, though the Bush administration labored to keep them on even keel.
But the spotlight intensified after it was revealed that the Pentagon last month hosted a briefing where a Rand Corp. analyst labeled Saudi Arabia an "enemy." The PowerPoint presentation which according to Slate magazine concluded with "Iraq is the tactical pivot; Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot, Egypt the prize" advocated an invasion of the keeper of Islam's holiest sites unless the regime stopped all support for terror networks.
The Bush administration acted quickly to assure the Saudi government that the briefing had nothing to do with US policy. But it nevertheless demonstrates building interest both within some White House offices and among some increasingly influential voices outside government in the democracy-security connection.
For example, in May William Kristol, chairman of New American Century and a leading neoconservative voice, called at congressional hearings for the US to "find an alternative ... to a Saudi regime that funds and foments terror." He presented "regime change" in Iraq as a place to start, saying that "a representative government in Baghdad would demonstrate that democracy can work in the Arab world."