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Inside Politics

Bush pushes Middle East democracy

President says 'advancement of freedom' is calling for U.S.

President Bush called for democratic reforms in the Middle East in a speech Thursday.
President Bush called for democratic reforms in the Middle East in a speech Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday called for governments throughout the Middle East to make democratic reforms, insisting that "freedom can be the future of every nation."

In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, billed by the White House as a major policy address, the president said, "The advancement of freedom is the calling of our time. It is the calling of our country."

Referring to Arab and Muslim states throughout the region, Bush said, "In many Middle Eastern countries, poverty is deep, and it is spreading, women lack rights and are denied schooling, whole societies remain stagnant while the world moves ahead. These are not the failures of a culture or a religion. These are the failures of political and economic doctrines."

He called the U.S.-led effort in Iraq "a massive and difficult undertaking" but said it is "worth our sacrifice because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world and increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region."

Bush signed a bill authorizing $87.5 billion for U.S. military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan later Thursday at the White House. (Full story)

In the address before the Washington nonprofit group that promotes democracy, Bush was critical of two of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria.

"Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation," he said. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

Bush said the Tehran government "must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy."

He added, "Dictators in Iraq and Syria promised the restoration of national honor, a return to ancient glories. They've left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin."

Addressing the Palestinians, Bush referred dismissively to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat -- although he did not mention him by name.

"For the Palestinian people, the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy," Bush said.

"And Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all. They are the main obstacles to peace and to the success of the Palestinian people."

Thursday's address largely was a reiteration of previous speeches and comments of Bush's vision for democracy in the Middle East.

The president said Western nations must share some responsibility for allowing problems in the Mideast to fester.

"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 expense of liberty," Bush said.

"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."

Bush praised steps toward democracy undertaken in some countries, including Yemen, Qatar and Jordan. He said the Saudi government "is taking first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections."

Egypt "has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," he said.

Bush insisted he is not calling for Middle Eastern governments to model themselves on the United States. "We are mindful that modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us," he said.

"Working democracies always need time to develop, as did our own," Bush said. "We've taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice, and this makes us patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey."

Bush dismissed those who argue that Islam is not compatible with democracy, calling that belief "cultural condescension." More than half of Muslims in the world "live in freedom under democratic societies," he said.

Still, he said, some men and groups of men "have gained influence in the Middle East and beyond through an ideology of theocratic terror. Behind their language of religion is the ambition for absolute political power."

The president also spoke briefly about nations outside the Middle East.

He said China has only "a sliver, a fragment of liberty. Yet China's peoples will eventually want their liberty pure and whole."

"Our commitment to democracy is tested in countries like Cuba and Burma and North Korea and Zimbabwe, outposts of oppression in our world."


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