WASHINGTON — President Bush's ambitious vision of global democratic reform has begun to dominate the administration's foreign affairs agenda, in some cases pushing aside urgent international issues.
So far, the president's plan has been driven mainly by high-level rhetoric, symbolic gestures and a handful of modestly funded development programs. But collectively, this mix has started to shift the focus in relations with key nations.
In the four months since Bush unveiled the approach in his second inaugural address, nearly every meeting with foreign officials and many of the changes taking place within the Bush administration, including several key appointments, has reflected the priority of expanding the boundaries of democracy.
By now, the presidential vision even has its own buzz phrase: "practical idealism," a reference to the policy's underlying premise that in a post-Sept. 11 world, America's national security is tied directly to the spread of free and open societies everywhere, including the Middle East.
Although few foreign policy specialists interviewed for this article questioned the president's personal sincerity, some dismissed his plan as little more than fantasy. Others expressed doubt that the U.S. had the credibility to advance such ambitious reforms -- especially in the Islamic world.
Whatever the eventual outcome, there is evidence of initial effects.
"People in the Middle East already see it as a very powerful initiative," said Walter Russell Mead, an expert on America's role in the world at the Council on Foreign Relations. "A lot of people are beginning to wonder if American foreign policy isn't in the midst of a fundamental change."
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief got a taste of this change during his weeklong visit to Washington last month. Egypt is an important player in the Middle East peace process and a vital, if quiet, ally in the struggle to create stability in Iraq. But Nazief repeatedly was put on the defensive by questions on one topic: Egypt's plans for democratic reform.
Nazief said two pressing regional issues were largely left out of his May 18 visit with Bush: the unfolding crisis just to Egypt's south in the Darfur region of Sudan, and Syria's involvement in Lebanon.
The president and first lady have alternately criticized and cheered the Egyptian regime. During a trip to Cairo, Laura Bush praised a controversial draft law to create multi-candidate presidential elections, while Bush condemned beatings of government opponents.
Despite the administration's aggressive new effort to promote reform, formidable hurdles litter the path toward Bush's goal.
In the Middle East, America's poor image and more urgent strategic concerns, such as assuring the welfare of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, diminish the administration's leverage to induce reform. Closer to home, bureaucratic resistance within parts of the U.S. government that are skeptical of the agenda threaten to blunt the effect of existing pro-democracy initiatives.
More significant, the new emphasis on promoting democracy has launched policymakers on a journey with no clear path to their goal.
"What we want is a world of democratic, market-oriented countries," said Stephen Krasner, whose job as head of policy planning at the State Department is to direct the search for future external challenges that the country might face. "The big challenge is how to get there."
Such daunting tasks nurture considerable skepticism about Bush's vision.
"The simplistic notion that you talk a great deal about democracy and twist a few arms and it will somehow come magically on its own is absurd," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security advisor to President Carter.
None of the doubts, however, have visibly blunted the administration's zeal to press for reform. In the corridors of the State Department and Washington's many political think tanks, the talk is of "transformational diplomacy."
At the State Department, Krasner estimates he devotes about 75% of his time on how to extend the boundaries of democracy around the globe.
"We're working actively to find the most effective ways to accomplish this goal," he said.
Within the State Department, several jobs central to the push for democracy have been filled by people who have greater access to the upper levels of power.
Krasner, for example, was a faculty colleague of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Stanford. Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Elizabeth recently took over responsibility for a set of initiatives meant to promote private enterprise and democracy across the Middle East and North Africa.
Carlos Pascual, head of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, which was created last summer to help rebuild failing states as open societies, reports directly to Rice and also shares a Stanford connection.