In the long run of history, a president's success is often defined by foreign policy. And for George W. Bush, the stakes are now clearer than ever: it's democracy or bust. Condoleezza Rice's sweep through the Mideast and Europe this week is providing dramatic evidence of just how much Bush understands that his reputation as president is riding largely on the success of his Arab democracy crusade. Almost since 9/11, Bush has made the spread of liberty a central theme of his presidency. But as the secretary of State told reporters traveling with her today, there is now "a new kind of urgency" to the campaign.
It's fairly clear why that is. Now slogging into its third year, the Iraq war has been a devastating, draining experience. Bush has lost much of his political standing and capital at home, polls show, and his Army is almost certain to remain occupied with this task for the remainder of his term. American credibility abroad is badly damaged; the tally of American lives and limbs is climbing so high that Republicans are even worried about the Iraq effect on the 2006 by-elections--a campaign usually not determined by foreign policy. It is now settled wisdom in Washington and around the world that Iraq was not, as Bush once said, a "gathering" threat. So perhaps only democratic transformation can justify this ambitious war in history's eyes. If democracy overtakes the Arab world--ridding it of the backward, autocratic regimes that have generated so much anger and terror--Bush could go down as a visionary president. If democracy doesn't take hold, he may well be remembered mainly for starting a premeditated, disastrous war. The stakes are high.
The amount of diplomatic energy--not to mention taxpayer dollars--being spent on this democracy campaign is striking. At various stops on her tour Rice has gingerly prodded the Saudis and Egyptians, lashed out at the Iranians and Syrians, exhorted the Iraqis and badgered the Europeans to help with all this government reform. She has brought in some of Bush's heaviest hitters from the first term to help--among them former Bush political advisor Karen Hughes and former chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian who wrote some of the president's most soaring rhetoric (and who's along on this trip.) The administration is also allocating $293 million for its "Middle East Partnership Initiative" to train election observers, build activist networks around the region and empower women in a variety of ways. In remarks made today on her plane en route to Brussels, Rice admitted she's spending a lot of her discussion time with Arab leaders on democracy. Indeed, at a dinner Monday night with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal in Riyadh, she appeared to devote more of the meeting to pressing him on the status of three jailed activists than she did on oil or Iraqi debt. Why? "It's an issue of deep conviction for the president," she said later.
To the extent Egyptians and others take this U.S. pressure seriously--and many do--even they ascribe it to Bush's sense of near-desperation over the Iraq project and his political weakness at home. "This is the main way that the Iraq war has had impact on us," says a former Egyptian diplomat who declined to be identified in Cairo. "Not because of what's happened in Iraq, but because we know only by making democracy succeed can Bush justify the war. So he will keep up the pressure." Even some Arabs who are skeptical about Bush's sincerity believe it will now be next to impossible, with the White House watching, for autocrats like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to simply jail their opponents and make them go away. Rice made that clear after she canceled a trip to Egypt earlier this year in protest at Mubarak's arrest of opposition candidate Ayman Nour. She rescheduled only after Nour was released.
Still, the Bush administration recognizes it must go slowly. And although Bush has had some success at pushing reform--aided by happenstance such as Yasir Arafat's death late last year and the Lebanese "people power" movement which grew out of the February assassination of popular former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri-- this cautious approach has sometimes generated a new mistrust of U.S. intentions. In Egypt, for example, the administration is balancing Mubarak's value as an ally--he's now needed more than ever to help stabilize the region as tensions flare over Iraq and the Palestinian issue--against the desire to make democracy work. This week some opponents of Mubarak, like the opposition group Kifaya, contended that Bush's embrace of Mubarak's marginal reforms would only undermine their efforts, and they declined to attend Rice's Cairo speech. Many observers believe Mubarak has rigged his new election law to make it prohibitively difficult for challengers to enter the presidential race. First Lady Laura Bush, in a visit to Egypt last month, praised Mubarak's election law as a "bold step." But a day later, goons financed by Mubarak's long-entrenched party roughed up demonstrators opposed to his regime.
At every stop on her Mideast tour this week Rice has had to dance diplomatically through a minefield of half-hidden hypocrisies. In her Cairo speech she declared that "democracy is never imposed," and that the United States wants to project its goals with "humility." But she then followed with a catalogue of what Arab governments "must" do and declared flatly, "Democracy is the ideal path for every nation." Not surprisingly, in interview after interview, Rice has been challenged for pursuing "double standards" on the kind of democratic success the administration wants to see, as one Arab TV correspondent put it Monday. Washington is insisting that Mubarak change his nation's laws to permit opposition groups into his September election. But in a gift to Mubarak, Rice declared on Monday that America will have no contacts with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most popular opposition group in Egypt and one that says it has renounced terrorism and embraced free elections and universal suffrage. The reason, she indicated, is that Mubarak, who has ruled under martial law, has a law on the books banning the group.
Why is this particular law sacrosanct when at the same time Washington is asking the Egyptians to change their entire constitution? When asked, Rice refused to say. But the administration has been leery of supporting any group that, like the Brotherhood, seeks to establish an Islamic state, whether in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories, even though they are sometimes the most popular organizations. And her dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood did not resonate well with an audience that also heard her declare, "It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."
Rice dismisses the idea that the administration is slow-rolling its democracy push for friendly regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia while being much tougher on hostile regimes like Iran and Syria. "We have had pretty muscular language, I think," she said today. But as she well knows, it will take far more than words to shape history's verdict of George W. Bush.