By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/21/2005 7:18:20 PM ET 2005-01-22T00:18:20

President Bush said it is now the policy of the United States to support the spread of democracy around the world.

"The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," he said in his inaugural speech on Thursday.

It is not the first time an American president has committed the nation to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” — the words of President John F. Kennedy at his 1961 inauguration.

But with 140,000 U.S. troops tied down in Iraq, has Bush over-promised? No one believes he supports overthrowing leaders in Egypt, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia — all repressive regimes, and all allies in the war on terror.

“We have to admire the vision and the idealism of it, but it seems to me we also have to wonder about the ability to accomplish those goals,” says former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Friday, Bush administration officials said the president did not mean he will take on countries like China or Russia — both often criticized for abusin human rights. But it does mean countries will be judged by how they progress toward democracy.

“Many of our friends realize it's time for them to change anyway, and they are, indeed, looking at making change within their own societies,” says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Still, if people could vote freely in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, they are likely to establish anti-American governments.

“Are we really prepared to do what the rhetoric implies that it says that we are going to do?” asks former Clinton National Security Council official Ivo Daalder. “And if not, have we created perhaps a cauldron here that we can no longer control?”

The administration is not ruling out a military threat, especially against Iran, which it believes is hiding a nuclear program.

Friday night, a senior official said the president knows he cannot accomplish his goals through force of arms alone, but countries are still left wondering: is the Bush policy a threat?

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