- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

In what is likely to be remembered as a central foreign policy address of his presidency, President Bush yesterday delivered a powerful message emphasizing the importance of democratic reform throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, the president noted that the stakes are particularly high in Iraq, where failure “would embolden terrorists throughout the world.” But success in Iraq, he said, “will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran — that freedom can be the future of every nation.” Mr. Bush — rightly, we believe — likened the allied efforts to democratize Iraq today to the efforts by President Truman to defend Greece from communism in 1947 and later to mobilize the Berlin Airlift.

But, Mr. Bush went well beyond Iraq, urging that democratic freedoms be extended throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. The president was remarkably blunt in his criticism of the failure of Western nations to demand freedom for the people of the Mideast. “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 cost of liberty,” Mr. Bush stated.

The president made clear that, in the wake of September 11, Western democracies could no longer afford to pursue a policy of benign neglect toward political reform in the Middle East. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export,” he said. “And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.”

The crux of the problem, Mr. Bush emphasized, is not the Muslim religion, but anti-democratic economic and political doctrines that have become dominant in the Mideast. In remarks that should make Syrian strongman Bashar Assad uncomfortable, Mr. Bush likened the present Ba’athist regime in Damascus to the fallen one headed by Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Both governments, he said, had promised their people national dignity; instead, they left behind a legacy of torture and misery. Similarly, the president was sharply critical of the radical Islamic regime in Tehran and of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for standing in the way of freedom for their people. Noting the tumultuous reception received by Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadi last month, when she returned to her country after winning the Nobel Prize, Mr. Bush declared, “The regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy.” In an unmistakable reference to Mr. Arafat, Mr. Bush condemned Palestinian leaders “who block and undermine democratic reform, and feed hatred and encourage violence.”

The president also called attention to places in the Arab and Islamic worlds in which the demand for freedom is growing. The president pointed to a variety of examples, ranging from Oman’s decision to extend the vote to all adult citizens to King Mohammed of Morocco’s call to extend equal rights to women. Even Saudi Arabia, Mr. Bush said, was planning to gradually introduce elections.

Mr. Bush realizes very well that this will be a difficult undertaking. But it would be a serious mistake to confuse “difficult” with “impossible.” Sixteen years ago, for example, President Reagan doubtlessly sounded quixotic to many when he demanded that Communist Party boss Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down a few years later, serious people realized that Mr. Reagan was prescient.

In recent weeks, skeptics, both domestic and foreign, have been making the assumption that Mr. Bush is looking for an exit strategy from Iraq. This speech should disabuse them of that theory. Rather, he is staking both his presidency and our national security on his conviction that he was strategically right to seek democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, even at the cost of temporary instability and higher casualties. We concur.

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