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Skepticism at Home Threatens Bush's Vision

Americans like the idea of spreading democracy; they just don't believe it will work, polls show.

January 15, 2006|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after President Bush declared that America had to push the boundaries of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere to assure the survival of its own freedom, his initiative has met with stiff resistance abroad.

But the real Achilles' heel of Bush's grand vision may lie in a lack of support at home.

A task that Bush has called "the concentrated work of generations" requires enough backing both in Congress and in the general population to carry the idea beyond Bush's own presidency, U.S. foreign policy specialists argue.

To succeed, Bush needs the kind of solid, unchallenged backing the nation gave over four decades to the strategy of containing the Soviet Union and its allies, said Steven A. Cook, a leading expert on democracy in the Middle East who directed a recent study for the New York city-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"There needs to be the same agreement on political change in the Middle East," Cook said.

By most accounts, Bush has a long way to go.

Bush said last January in his second inaugural address that U.S. policy was "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture."

Opinion polls indicate Americans are not averse to Bush's idea. They just don't think it can work. Only one-third of Americans believe expanding democracy in the Middle East is a good idea that can succeed, according to a survey published in November by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. The rest either consider it a bad idea or think it stands no chance of success.

"There's almost no evidence the public, even Bush's strongest supporters, have embraced or are enthusiastic about spreading democracy," said Andrew Kohut, Pew center executive director.

Kohut described public support among Americans for the idea as about the same today as it was a decade ago. It's not hard to understand why.

In a world awash in anti-American sentiment, the administration's push to promote democracy abroad has brought new electoral influence to Islamist parties in the Middle East and to other groups elsewhere holding anti-U.S. views.

Just as problematic for Bush are the hurdles at home. He has been so focused on halting the erosion of public support for the Iraq war that once-frequent promotion of democratic advances, including references to countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Egypt, have been omitted from his recent speeches.

And with Washington sharply divided on partisan lines, promotion of democracy remains closely associated with Bush personally in the public mind.

"When he goes, it will go," predicted a senior administration official who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We haven't sold the policy as well as we should have."

Bush's initiative faces other hurdles, such as possible failure in Iraq and a growing public resistance to extending the United States' global commitments beyond Iraq.

Despite all this, some moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress are eager to embrace the core of Bush's view that greater political freedom enhances stability and thus reduces the potential dangers to the nation.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, last year introduced a bill that would make promoting democracy a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy. The bill was passed by the House in August and is awaiting action by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where its chances are viewed as good.

"On a bipartisan basis, there are enough of us in Congress to keep this idea going," Lantos said in an interview.

Lantos added, however, that expectations must be reduced.

"The use of the term 'democracy' must undergo a dramatic transformation in dealing with countries like Iraq, Afghanistan or many other countries in the world," he said. "No one who is rational would expect to see Jeffersonian democracy in the short run.

"When you define the goal in more realistic terms -- less brutality, fewer killings, fewer gulags, a society that's somewhat more open and tolerant -- that's not just a plausible long-term policy, but the only long-term policy for the United States."

Still, Bush's ability to build a lasting consensus for his democracy initiative remains unclear. In the recent congressional fight over renewing the Patriot Act and a debate over electronic surveillance, Bush's political instincts have been more to push back than reach out.

"He needs to reach out more to Democrats to actively solicit and foster the kind of bipartisanship that we had in the Cold War," said Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy development at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who served as a senior advisor in the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. "If he tries to involve Democrats, gives them a sense of ownership with what we are doing on these kinds of policies, I think he'll have success."

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