U.S. democracy agenda loses steam with Iraq focus

The Bush administration’s democracy agenda, which was losing steam even before last week’s U.S. elections, will become less of a priority now the focus is on stabilizing Iraq, said foreign policy analysts.

Despite President Bush’s public focus on spreading freedom and democracy, the State Department has notably toned down its own talk, particularly in the Middle East where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comments about seeking a “New Middle East” were panned.

With Democrats trouncing Republicans and taking control of the U.S. Congress in Nov. 7’s elections, largely because of anger over the administration’s handling of Iraq, analysts say there will likely be less public talk of democracy.

“I would say the election would have killed the democracy initiative if Bush had not killed it before the election. The steam was already out of it big time,” said Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

At the State Department, the official line is still that democracy is at the top of the agenda but privately some officials concede there is less of a rush.

“It remains as important to our foreign policy as before,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “Those are probably people who did not like it to begin with,” he said of the criticism.

The Bush administration cited the threat of weapons of mass destruction as its main reason for invading Iraq but after no such arms were found, the focus shifted to spreading democracy, said Ned Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel.

“The reasons they went into Iraq did not have a lot to do with democracy but they had to find a reason for it,” he said. “If you can’t find any weapons, then democracy was seen as an alternative which would justify it.”

The election of the militant group Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon had also tempered the democracy agenda, Walker said.


“The rhetoric has gone and I think a lot of countries in the Middle East have a sense that we are not pushing this goal of democracy and that maybe we have a more realistic view of what the implications of democracy are,” he said.

Middle East expert Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution said in the Arab world, opinion polls showed that the Bush administration’s freedom agenda was not taken seriously anyway.

“Arab governments that felt the heat directly or indirectly always believed that the pressure was not intended to spread democracy but to pressure them to cooperate strategically on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or on Iraq,” said Telhami.

Thomas Carothers, head of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent U.S.-based think tank, cited Iraq as a prime example of the Bush administration’s agenda revision.

Sectarian violence in Iraq and increased attacks on U.S. troops has made the war less popular at home and forced the White House to review its strategy and to focus on getting the country stable rather than on democracy.

“Faced with failure in Iraq they have to move the goal posts,” said Carothers.

There is bipartisan support for spreading democracy, but the difference is on how to reach that goal, said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization which provides grants to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide.

“It (democratization) cannot happen quickly. There will be a lot of bumps on the road and it has to be given a chance to move forward. It is not just one election or the fall of a regime, it is a long-term process,” he said.

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