Is anyone actually hearing what Bush is saying?

It's a pity that 99 percent of the protesters against President Bush during his British visit this week will not have read his democracy speech of a couple of weeks ago to the National Endowment for Democracy. (I'm fairly confident about that percentage, because not even 99 percent of his own compatriots have read it).

It offered remarkable insight into Mr. Bush's thinking about freedom for the world's still unfree, and contained significant clues about the new direction he will take in advancing freedom for them during his presidential tenure.

You can protest against the manner in which Bush has gone about bringing freedom to Iraq. That is a legitimate issue for debate. You can rail, with European hauteur, against the style of an American president who wears cowboy boots with his tuxedo and bestows folksy nicknames on foreign leaders.

But nobody, after reading that democracy speech, can doubt the man's passion for bringing at least some form of democracy to those parts of the world where people are still denied it.

Some will dismiss this as simplistic and naive. That, of course, was what some Europeans thought of Ronald Reagan's Palace of Westminster speech in 1982, when he told a British audience that a turning point in history had arrived - that Soviet communism had failed because it did not respect its own people, their creativity, and their rights.

The British protesters against Bush already enjoy stable democracy. Nevertheless their prime minister, Tony Blair, has paid a high political price for voicing the same ambitions as Bush for the world's oppressed. But nobody who listened to his speech at London's Guildhall a few nights ago (a speech 99 percent of Americans never heard, unless they happened to be watching C-SPAN late at night) could question Blair's commitment to the pursuit of liberty for others that his countrymen already celebrate.

In his speech calling for a new "forward strategy" in US foreign policy, Bush pledged to put American power "at the service of principle." But this was no bellicose threat of military action against every nation that tramples human rights.

The postwar problems in Iraq must surely have been sobering to the White House and to the American public alike. The president targeted Cuba and Burma (Myanmar) and North Korea and Zimbabwe as "outposts of oppression," but his particular frustration was reserved for the lands of the Middle East, whose lack of freedom, he said, had been "excused and accommodated," for 60 years by Western nations.

Thus persuasion, and the encouragement of the "leaders of new democracies," who will one day emerge "from prison cells and from exile," seems to be at the heart of the new policy.

Particularly interesting were his remarks about Iran. Though US intelligence about Iraq's nuclear planning may have been flaky, there isn't much doubt that Iran has had nuclear ambitions and tried to cover them up. Despite recent Iranian promises of openness to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), designed to forestall sanctions, Iran's potential nuclear capability remains considerable.

Yet Bush made no threat of a US invasion of Iran in his speech, rather suggesting that reform and change should come from within: "The regime in Iran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy."

A few days before, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had assured US senators that regime change in Iran is not US policy. But, said Mr. Armitage, the US would be "very forthright in our views about transparency and governance and human rights."

Experts I've talked to suggest that Iran is not currently in a prerevolutionary mode. Offending newspapers and dissidents feel the brunt of the regime's apparatus of repression. But recent student demonstrations have abated. And while there is substantial discontent (12 to 15 percent of the population "officially" unemployed, but actually perhaps nearer 20 percent), the public seems leery of violent upheaval, instead hoping for peaceful evolution through constitutional means.

Against this background at home, the Iranian regime seems willing to engage in dialogue with the US, while taking pragmatic steps to stave off confrontation with the IAEA, and the European Union, both of which took a tough stand on disclosure and inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities.

While the awesome might of the American military remains evident, the George Bush the British are seeing this week is embarked on a new "forward strategy" that involves far less militancy.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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