WASHINGTON – For years, President Bush has eagerly waved a flag for democracy in the Mideast from afar. This week, he steps gingerly into the troubled region where his freedom agenda is stalled.
Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address that the U.S. would work for democratic reform in every nation and culture "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Now, in the final months of his presidency, he is off to sell democratic ideals to wary Middle Eastern leaders who have turned their focus to who will succeed Bush and how political turmoil will play out in Pakistan.
The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 has cast a shadow over Bush's trip to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"It is very much on the minds of everyone in the region and particularly on the minds of the authoritarian Arab rulers in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and the Gulf States," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution analyst who advised Bush on the Middle East.
They see embattled Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf as one of them, Riedel said. "They see his political problems as evocative of what happens when the word democracy is uttered in a Muslim state and they fear very much that this strong ally of theirs is going to be deposed in 2008."
During his trip, Bush will nudge the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peace pact, get an update on Iraq and work to counter Iran's quest for greater influence in the region. But Bush's freedom agenda in the region -- an initiative he holds close to his heart -- will be an overarching theme.
In a speech Sunday in the United Arab Emirates, Bush will highlight political change that has occurred in places like Bahrain and how regional security is important not only for democracy, but economic growth. On Saturday he'll host a round-table session about democracy with Kuwaiti women, who were excluded from political life until recently.
Bush has said repeatedly that he never expected "Jeffersonian democracy to break out instantly" across the Middle East. That's a reality readily acknowledged by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley who, in previewing Bush's trip, ticked off democratic reforms that have taken place in the region during the past few years, then lamented the sluggish progress.
Hadley noted that: The first woman was elected to the parliament in Bahrain -- the first ever in any Gulf Arab state; Kuwait allowed women to vote and run for office for the first time; Egypt held its first multi-party elections; Saudi Arabia held municipal council elections and King Abdullah has started a national dialogue to address reform, including women's rights and relations with non-Muslims.
"I think it is fair to say that this rate of progress has not continued in the way we would have hoped," Hadley said, adding that the democracy agenda suffered a setback when the militant Islamic group Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.
Hamas later led a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, essentially splitting Palestinian governance. Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, now runs Gaza, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah Party, backed by the United States, now run the West Bank.
"I think the election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections gave a number of countries pause as to where this was heading," Hadley said.
If Bush wants to underscore his commitment to his freedom agenda in the Middle East, Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the president should stop in Lebanon -- "the last flickering flame of the administration's democratization push in the Middle East" -- where the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora is locked in a political standoff with the pro-Syrian opposition.
Bush hasn't given up on seeing democracy flourish in the Middle East, and his advisers are convinced it will be something history will ultimately enshrine to his legacy. But they say that short-run concerns -- such as curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, fighting terrorists and maintaining regional security -- have required trade-offs.
Bush has been criticized for ignoring repression in Egypt, being tolerant when Musharraf imposed emergency rule in Pakistan and taking a much harder stance against the ruling junta in Myanmar. Despite these decisions, the administration insists Bush has never stopped championing democracy or meeting with political reformists, dissidents and human rights advocates around the world.
"I think what they truly believe in their heart of hearts is that the history books will give George Bush credit for being the first one to sound the liberty bell in the Middle East," said Ken Pollack, director of research at Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "What is unclear is what his legacy will be beyond that, and I think that what we would all say the most generous assessment that you can give was `Bright idea. Horrendous execution.' "