WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday challenged several Middle East countries, including key allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to embrace democracy and conceded that decades of US policies that backed authoritarian governments in the region had failed.
In an unusually candid assessment of Mideast policy by a US president, Bush said decades of support by Washington and its allies of nondemocratic regimes in the region did not work, but that the United States had now adopted a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded group that promotes democratic efforts worldwide.
The president also said that a democratic Iraq would serve as a beacon of hope for nations in the region to follow.
"Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation," Bush said. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
Bush's speech, made two hours before he signed legislation allowing $87 billion to be spent stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, offered an expansive view of his hopes for a part of the world where poverty and stifling regimes prevail.
But critics said the president's expressed hope of a swelling tide of Middle East democracy is simplistic and too optimistic.
"He is raising the bar far, far too high," said Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "The belief is that the rest of the world is crying out for liberal democracy, American-style. It's just incredibly unrealistic."
Other democracies need not resemble the US model, the president added, but he offered "essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture."
Those principles include: limits on the power of the state and of the military; a consistent and impartial rule of law; religious freedom; room for civic institutions like political parties; investment in health and education; and a recognition of the rights of women.
"These vital principles are being applied in the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq," Bush said.
Bush did not limit his vision of democracy to the Middle East. Arguing that leaders will emerge from the prison cells of places like Burma, North Korea, and Cuba, the president said a great tide of democracy would touch all parts of the world.
The president's comments on the Middle East were particularly striking, given the violence in the region and the complex relationships Washington has had with several governments. His harshest criticism was aimed at Syria and Iran.
Bush praised Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two governments that have been criticized for being authoritarian but key allies for Washington's war on terrorism. But he urged both countries to follow through with initial reforms.
"The Saudi government is taking the first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections," Bush said. "By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region."
As for Egypt, Bush said that country has "shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
Basham said the Bush administration's unwillingness to confront the abuses of governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia feeds skeptics who wonder how much the United States really cares.
"When you are at the same time cozying up to regimes that work to limit just about any type of freedom, then your credibility is seriously reduced," he said. "It makes it that much harder to convince people on the ground that we are serious."
Bush's speech marked the 20th anniversary for the National Endowment for Democracy, which was created by Congress during the Reagan administration and provides grants to prodemocracy groups around the world.
US Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, said Bush's policies have made it more difficult to push for democracy.
"The US used to be respected around the world," said Kerry, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Now, it is mistrusted and even hated. This makes us less able to promote democracy around the globe."
Kerry said the Bush administration needs to be more collaborative and more engaged in the Middle East peace process. The White House insists it is committed to rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan to serve as democratic models in the Middle East and central Asia. From the moment the president asked, his $87 billion request was never in doubt of being rejected by Congress. But there was strong opposition to his plan to make $20 billion of that request a grant rather than a loan.
Critics in Congress, worried that their constituents would be angry that so much money was being given to an oil-rich country like Iraq while they cope with job losses and cutbacks here at home, pushed to make the $20 billion a loan. In a move he rarely makes, Bush threatened to veto the legislation if the $20 billion was not included as a grant.
Despite the deaths in Iraq, Bush emphasized that his administration's policies there and in Afghanistan are crucial to the defeat of terrorism and the establishment of democracy.
"Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world sees a test of will and a clash of strategies," he said. "The strategy of our enemies -- whether Al Qaeda, Ba'athist, Taliban, or others -- is to intimidate newly free men and women who are trying to establish democracy and to cause America and our allies to flee our responsibilities. The strategy of America and our allies is equally clear. We're helping the Iraqi and Afghan people build just and democratic governments."
Accomplishing that goal, Basham said, is more difficult than the administration believes, particularly in countries that have no history of democracy and have denied its citizens the most basic of necessities.
"The conditions for democracy have to be home-grown," Basham said. "It can't be imposed. . . . Once you're materially comfortable, then you start worrying about things like freedom of speech."