His Iraq project may be in trouble and the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon he has lauded seems close to collapse, but George W. Bush has not given up on the transformational power of democracy and individual liberties.
In a speech Tuesday to enthusiastic listeners in this former Iron Curtain country, a seemingly undaunted President Bush said the struggle for freedom against a "hateful extremist ideology" that abhors democracy is the struggle of our time. He compared the recent struggle of countries like Latvia – which not so long ago, he said, feared that freedom would never come – with the struggle for freedom in the Middle East.
Mr. Bush also sent a signal to those he called "pessimists" about freedom's chances in the Middle East: The United States would not give up that battle while he is president. In what appeared to be a direct response to political forces in the US pressing for withdrawal from Iraq, Bush said, "We aren't going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
Together with comments he made Monday in Estonia, another former Soviet republic, Bush appeared determined to end speculation that the last two years of his presidency would witness a dampened enthusiasm for promoting democracy.
In recent months, Bush has appeared at times to temper his zeal for freedom through democracy as conditions in Iraq have deteriorated. Some of the administration's neoconservative thinkers who promoted transformational intervention have been sidelined, and foreign-policy realists – symbolized by former Secretary of State James Baker III – have returned to the fore.
But Bush did not use the word "stability" – the watchword of foreign-policy realists – even one time in his speech Monday. Many foreign-policy experts have speculated that in the coming months the US would shift from an emphasis on democracy to a focus on stabilizing the country – even at the cost of some individual freedoms. Leaders in the region have appeared to favor a renewed focus on stability. Notably, Jordan's King Abdullah, who will host Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for talks Wednesday and Thursday, warned earlier this week of three civil wars in the region: in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.
While Bush did refrain from heralding Iraq as a potential beacon to other Middle Eastern countries struggling for freedom – an image he has employed in the past – he did speak of Iraq as one focal point of the 21st- century's defining struggle: freedom's battle with totalitarian extremism.
In his comments Monday to democracy advocates in Estonia, Bush said much of the violence in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East could be explained by extremist resistance to democracy. "When you see a young democracy beginning to emerge in the Middle East, the extremists try to defeat its emergence."
Soon after his reelection in 2004, Bush used another European trip to signal a redirection in US foreign policy away from the aggressive, go-it-alone approach that had followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He spoke with leaders at NATO, made a point of including the European Union in his stop in Brussels, and used meetings with French President Jacques Chirac and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to symbolize a burying of the hatchet over Iraq.
Perhaps most significant, Bush dispatched his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to work with the Europeans on heading off a nuclear Iran.
On that trip in February 2005, Bush used an outdoor speech in Bratislava, Slovakia – like Latvia, another former communist country – to tout the virtues of liberty and democracy to a receptive audience.
In an indirect way, Bush's Riga speech suggested how Iraq is commanding both the president's time and attention. The speech had been scheduled for Wednesday at the close of the NATO summit. But now Bush will leave directly after the summit for Jordan.
Some Europeans who attended Bush's speech said they found Bush to be as enthusiastic as ever about the transformational qualities of democracy, but also sensed a wider acceptance of the cooperation – and time – needed for democracy to take hold.
"He certainly expressed his strong belief that promoting democracy and freedom is really the right thing to do," says Harald Thørud, president of the National Youth Atlantic Treaty Association in Oslo, Norway. In Riga for a conference of young Alliance leaders sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the US – which also co-hosted Bush's speech – Mr. Thørud said he was struck by Bush's insistence on sticking with Iraq despite the difficulties.
"He clearly is talking about the long run in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Mr. Thørud says he also senses that Europe is changing in its approach to what he prefers to call the "battle with extremist terrorism" and is opening up more to America as a partner in that fight. "I think more Europeans are seeing that what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq and other parts of the Middle East does have an impact for us here."
Indeed, even as Bush demonstrates an evolution from the unilateralist and militarist emphasis of his post-9/11 foreign policy, Europe is showing signs of its own transition in terms of dealing with the 21st-century world. Bush is visiting a Europe that is questioning its more pacifist tendencies and debating whether more aggressive intervention on behalf of distant democracies may be needed.
The German magazine Der Spiegel has a provocative headline on its cover this week: "The Germans must learn to kill again," referring to the current debate in Germany and within NATO over Germany's reluctance to see its soldiers deployed to parts of Afghanistan where Allied troops are engaging in warfare with the Taliban.