Bush unveils Mideast vision

Urges democracy in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia

`Forward strategy of freedom'

Ouster of Hussein termed part of global revolution


WASHINGTON - President Bush challenged Iran, Syria and two crucial U.S. allies in the Middle East - Egypt and Saudi Arabia - to begin embracing democratic traditions, and to view the fall of Saddam Hussein as "a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Bush's speech yesterday, before the National Endowment for Democracy, appeared to be part of an effort by the White House to change American and world perceptions of the Iraq occupation, describing it in broader strategic terms than the ouster of a dictator. But it came as Bush has been struggling to create democratic institutions in Iraq itself, and when the daily casualties among U.S. and coalition soldiers in Iraq have led many in the region to question whether the United States is capable of transforming the nation it invaded.

Bush sought to position the U.S. experiment in remaking Iraq alongside the nation's efforts to spread democracy in Asia and Europe after World War II and to bring about the fall of the Soviet Union. He compared what he called his administration's new, "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" to Ronald Reagan's declaration in England in 1982 that Soviet communism had failed.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," Bush argued, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

Bush named four countries where he said dictatorship was doomed to failure: North Korea, Myanmar - which he referred to by its former name, Burma - Cuba and Zimbabwe, declaring that "these regimes cannot hold back freedom forever." He predicted that just as Nelson Mandela emerged from captivity in South Africa to lead his nation, "One day, from prison camps and prison cells, and from exile, the leaders of new democracies will arrive" in the four countries.

Hours later, Bush gathered leaders of the House and Senate and his national security team in the East Room and signed the legislation that provides $87 billion for military action and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush had sounded similar themes before, notably in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute a month and a half before he ordered the invasion of Iraq. But until yesterday's speech, he had not named countries that he thought urgently needed to reform. For the first time, he also raised, gingerly, the issue of the absence of liberty in Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' major oil suppliers and a country that has long been spared public rebuke.

"The Saudi government is taking first steps toward reform," he said, picking his words carefully about a country that a senior aide said recently "is probably the most resistant to change of any nation in the region." He referred to its experiment with local elections, avoided any mention of the struggle within the Saudi royal family over whether and how to surrender some authority, and offered gentle encouragement. "By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society," Bush said, "the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region."

He pressed Egypt - which receives upward of $2 billion annually in aid from the United States - saying that it "has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

The pressure runs the risk of backfiring. In the Arab world, Bush's remarks about human rights and democracy are frequently viewed as hypocritical, and Arabs often compare those statements to the treatment of suspected terrorists held by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Bush's reluctance to demand that Israel stop constructing its barrier that will wall off the West Bank.

Some Arabs urging greater civil liberties say Bush's endorsement undermines them, because it paints them as stooges of the United States.

But a scattering feel it is a welcome form of pressure on regimes that have been stuck in place for decades, and even Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, praised Bush for doing something the Clinton administration had been loath to do: naming Middle East nations that have refused to liberalize.

"They have ended the Mideast exception to American human rights policy," he said of the Bush administration. "It is welcome moral clarity in the service of a policy that still lacks moral authority."

Not surprisingly, Bush heaped the most scorn on Iran and Syria, which his administration accuses of meddling in Iraq and seeking to undermine the occupation. "The regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy," the president declared.

He lumped Syria's leaders with Hussein, saying they had promised a restoration of ancient glories but instead left "a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin."

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