US President George W. Bush has put the spread of democracy at the core of his foreign policy. Unless it takes him where he does not want to go.
Taiwan, for instance.
On Dec. 9 Bush urged Taiwan to scratch a March referendum that China sees as a dangerous step toward independence. The president's critics saw that as a retreat from democracy-building for the island.
Russia offers another example. The administration raised only mild concerns over Russian parliamentary elections swept by allies of President Vladimir Putin, with whom Bush has cultivated close ties, particularly in the fight against terrorism. Human rights monitors from the West said the voting was skewed to benefit Putin's party.
In Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld congratulated a terrorism-fighting ally, Ilham Aliev, on his presidential victory in October -- even though hundreds were arrested in street riots after voting that international observers said was marred by fraud.
"The United States has a relationship with this country. We value it," Rumsfeld said, sidestepping a question on whether the vote met international standards for free and fair elections.
Bush has come up against a dilemma that all American presidents eventually face.
"I think it is important that you have a lodestar here of democracy. But you can't be a prisoner to it," said Sandy Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton White House. "Foreign policy is always a process of trading off, of striking the right balance among fundamental principles."
In a foreign policy speech Nov. 6, Bush declared a US commitment to the spread of democracy in the Middle East. The success of a democratic government in Iraq, he said, would "send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation."
Erecting democratic states in the midst of the Islamic world was not a Bush goal from the start. In fact, to some it smacked of the "nation-building" he railed against. The policy evolved with Afghanistan and gained momentum after the first rationale for invading Iraq -- the threat of weapons of mass destruction -- no longer could be argued.
Bush's commitment to sowing democracy has not stopped the administration from working closely with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf nations cited by the president as insufficiently democratic.
Administration defenders say there's good reason for those relationships.
Majority rule in Saudi Arabia -- should the House of Saud fall -- could result in a reactionary Islamic rule of the very sort favored by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist network leader.
In Iraq, the problem of getting democracy in place -- ideally, for Bush, before next year's White House election -- is complicated by the likelihood that any national election would empower the majority Muslim Shiites. That raises concerns of the prospect of Iraq becoming an Iranian-style, clergy-ruled state.
But then, as Rumsfeld likes to say, "freedom's untidy."
Bush continues to reach out in the broader terrorism campaign to leaders of countries where democracy is questionable or at best fragile.
One of his strongest partners is Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. While an elected civilian government now runs the country's daily affairs, Musharraf holds the real authority.
"What you see is a president who talks moral purity and ideology and does various things to appeal to his base. He's got strong belief systems. But he's also a highly pragmatic politician," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University.
"His idealism is like a baked Alaska, warm on the outside and cold on the inside," Greenstein said.
Bush's warning last week to Taiwan leaders against any moves toward independence that would increase tensions with China put Bush in the rare position of having to argue against self-expression and side with Beijing's communist leaders.
But Bush, who early in his term said US military force was "certainly an option" if China invaded Taiwan, now finds himself needing China's help in resolving the North Korean nuclear-weapons standoff. The last thing he wants is a military confrontation in the region with US forces spread so thin due to Iraq.
Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Bush created his own problem by raising Taiwan's expectations "with a lot of gung-ho rhetoric. Now he's hit them with a sledge hammer. That will actually harm the democratic process that we're seeking to support."
But Berger, the former Clinton national security adviser, said he thinks Bush did the right thing by signaling that US support for Taiwan was not unconditional.
"The first obligation here was to prevent a real crisis, which I believe was quite possible," Berger said.
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