Sitting in a prison cell halfway around the planet, an Egyptian opposition leader forced President Bush this month to confront the question of how serious he was when he vowed to devote his second term to "ending tyranny in our world."
Ayman Nour, who dared challenge Egypt's authoritarian leader in manipulated elections, was sentenced on Christmas Eve to five years on what U.S. officials consider bogus charges. Inside the administration, a debate ensued over whether to shelve a new trade agreement with Egypt in protest. In the end, the trade talks were suspended and an Egyptian negotiating team invited to Washington last week was told it was no longer welcome.
In the year since Bush redefined U.S. foreign policy in his second inaugural address to make the spread of democracy the nation's primary mission, the clarion-call language has resonated in the dungeons and desolate corners of the world. But soaring rhetoric has often clashed with geopolitical reality and competing U.S. priorities.
While the administration has enjoyed notable success in promoting liberty in some places, it has applied the speech's principles inconsistently in others, according to analysts, activists, diplomats and officials. Beyond its focus on Iraq, Washington has stepped up pressure on repressive regimes in countries such as Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe -- where the costs of a confrontation are minimal -- while still gingerly dealing with China, Pakistan, Russia and other countries with strategic and trade significance.
In the Middle East, where the administration has centered its attention, it has promoted elections in the Palestinian territories such as today's balloting for parliament, even as it directed money aimed at clandestinely preventing the radical Islamic group Hamas from winning. And although it has now suspended trade negotiations with Egypt, it did not publicly announce the move, nor has it cut the traditionally generous U.S. aid to Cairo.
‘Just a start’
"The glass is a quarter full, but we need more of it," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a group that promotes democracy. "The administration deserves credit, but it's just a start."
In its annual survey ranking nations as free, partly free or not free, the group upgraded nine nations or territories in 2005 and downgraded four. Among those deemed freer were Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where peaceful revolutions overthrew autocratic governments; Lebanon, where Syrian occupation troops were pressured to withdraw; and Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, where trailblazing elections were held. Overall, Freedom House concluded, "the past year was one of the most successful for freedom" since the survey began in 1972.
At the same time, Human Rights Watch released its annual report, upbraiding the Bush administration for undermining its credibility in promoting freedom abroad through its embrace of abusive interrogation tactics in the battle with terrorists. "There's no question that the issue of torture in particular has compromised the U.S. voice, and not only torture but a manifold list of other human rights issues," said the group's associate director, Carroll Bogert.
The broader question is the degree to which Bush's speech marked genuine change in policy rather than so much talk. In many parts of the government, democracy promotion seems still to take a back seat to other goals.
After the government in Uzbekistan massacred hundreds of protesters in Andijon, for instance, the Pentagon resisted any tough response to protect its military base there. Ultimately, even the restrained statements by the U.S. government alienated the autocratic Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, who threw out the U.S. military.
"They come into conflict every day," a senior official said of rival priorities inside the administration. "The question becomes the weight given to the intangible interest in freedom versus the tangible interest in having a base in Uzbekistan, for instance."
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing administration rules, called Bush's speech "a weapon in the hands of everyone in the administration who is pushing for a stronger and stronger democracy agenda."
"Anytime there's a question, should we say this or say that . . . someone can pull out a copy of the president's speech and say, 'Wait a second, may I quote from what the president said?' " the official added.
Outside the United States, the speech inspired many fighting for freedom but also raised expectations that are hard to fulfill. "All they do is talk right now," said Gulam Umarov. His father, Sanjar Umarov, head of the opposition Sunshine Coalition in Uzbekistan, has been in prison since October. "I don't know what actual moves they take. But they are talking, which is really good."
In other places, the United States has done more than talk. In Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. government funded pro-democracy groups and provided generators to print an opposition newspaper before its revolution. Edil Baisalov, director of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, can quote extensively from the Bush inaugural speech. "The Kyrgyz people are much, much better off today than they were a year ago, and I think the U.S. government should take pride in taking credit for that," he said. "And [it] should never apologize that it wants the people to be free."
In Belarus, another former Soviet republic ruled by an iron-fisted leader, Bush's words also stir hope. "We draw strength from these statements," said Vladimir Kolas, chairman of the Council of the Belarusian Intelligentsia opposing President Alexander Lukashenko. "We understand there are limits to what the U.S. can do. But we do need strong and decisive statements . . . that they will not recognize falsified election results."
The Bush administration has been willing to stay tough on Belarus and others it labeled "outposts of tyranny," such as Burma and Zimbabwe. Bush lobbied Asian leaders at a November summit in South Korea to bring Burma before the U.N. Security Council, and as a result the council had an unprecedented discussion last month. The United States also renewed economic sanctions adopted in 2003.
Opposition activists in Burma said they were grateful for U.S. efforts to highlight repression in their country. But despite these measures, little has changed, and some diplomats believe the situation has deteriorated. More than 1,100 political prisoners are behind bars, according to Amnesty International, and all regional offices of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy remain shuttered.
Outspoken on Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, U.S. Ambassador Christopher W. Dell has been so outspoken about President Robert Mugabe's government that he has been threatened with expulsion. David Coltart, an opposition member of parliament, said Zimbabwe has been on the Bush administration's radar screen, even if not the president's. "George Bush is too preoccupied by Iraq to be personally engaged in the Zimbabwe crisis," he said. "But Colin Powell certainly was a friend of those struggling to bring democracy. It's too early to say whether Condoleezza Rice is focused on Zimbabwe."
Elsewhere, the U.S. hand is not seen as readily. In East Africa, newspapers are filled with columns asking why the Bush administration ignores their undemocratic leaders. After violence spilled into the streets of Uganda's capital when President Yoweri Museveni changed the constitution to run for a third term, Washington was silent. Museveni also jailed his opponent on what critics call trumped-up charges of treason and rape.
In Ethiopia, where 40 people were killed by government forces firing into crowds protesting fraudulent elections, Ethiopians complained that it took months for U.S. officials to speak out. "Does the Bush administration care about fighting terrorism for its citizens or does it care about the political situation in a Third World country like Ethiopia?" asked Tamrat G. Giorgis, managing editor of Fortune, one of Ethiopia's only independent newspapers. "I think Africans are asking that question, and we know the war on terror is more important."
When it comes to places such as China and Russia, the Bush administration prefers private friendly advice to ringing public denunciations. Sometimes it passes on both. Although U.S. officials have said they would like Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took over Pakistan in a military coup, to give up his army post and govern as a civilian, Musharraf said last year that Bush has never raised the issue with him.
"I know presidents and diplomats are not dissidents and when they say they can achieve more in private talks, they may be sincere," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization under pressure from the Kremlin. "But I would still like to hear more. And maybe it will have an effect on our president."
Then there are Iran and North Korea, the two top enemies on Bush's list. The president appointed a special envoy on human rights in North Korea, but Abdollah Momeni of the Office for Fostering Unity, an Iranian student group, wants more constructive help. "If they only make noises about this, or if they think that through military action democracy can be achieved, they are moving on the wrong path," said Momeni, who is appealing a five-year prison sentence. "Military action against a country would dry up the democratic blossoms." But, he added, "more action and less talking is needed."
Challenge in Egypt
And there is Egypt, one of the most problematic places for the Bush democracy push. When President Hosni Mubarak agreed to let challengers run against him for the first time, a visiting Laura Bush praised the "wise and bold" move. But shortly after she left, Mubarak supporters orchestrated attacks on democracy demonstrators. The presidential election was manipulated, and a subsequent parliamentary election degenerated into violence and mass arrests.
The arrest of Nour, who won an unprecedented 7 percent against Mubarak, presented a singular challenge to Bush, who promised in his inaugural address to stand with "democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile." The White House pronounced itself "deeply troubled" and demanded Mubarak "release Mr. Nour from detention."
Nour remains behind bars.
Correspondents Peter Finn in Moscow, Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress in Jakarta, Craig Timberg in Johannesburg, Karl Vick in Tehran, Emily Wax in Nairobi, and Daniel Williams in Istanbul contributed to this report.