Commentary: Democratic Revolution?

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On Thursday, President Bush delivered a major address calling for a democratic revolution in the Middle East and around the world. WNYC's Brian Lehrer listened to the speech in London, where he'll be co-hosting a global call-in about democracy this afternoon. Brian thought the speech was visionary, but not entirely believable.

The speech was visionary for the Big Idea the president was willing to embrace and the risk that might come from embracing it. We often spend so much time debating the imperfections of our own form of government that we neglect the big and obvious: that democracy is, of course, better for people than government by dictators, royal families and theocrats.

And President Bush was right to single out the Middle East as being particularly democracy-challenged. This was the boldest line in the speech:

BUSH "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."

The President is brave to admit that too often in the past, US policy has been to promote stability over democracy. This was done out of fear, because change brings uncertainty, which can threaten US interests, such as cheap Mideast oil. The President's speech on Thursday chose hope over fear, even though revolution - and the president used that word - can be a dangerous business indeed.

But right-minded as much of the speech may have been, it was probably not received as credible by much of the world. And for good historical reasons.

I happen to have heard the speech at the BBC in London, where I've been seeing e-mail reaction from around the world. From Australia to the West Bank, listeners are raising questions about the very checkered history of US foreign policy - which has stood for democracy in theory much more than in practice. What we've usually done is to support democracy where it suits American security and American prosperity, and ignore democracy or even thwart democracy elsewhere.

Most relevantly, President Reagan supported Saddam Hussein in his most brutal chemical weapons years, as a hedge against Iran, our bigger enemy at that time. Just last year, the Bush Administration supported the unsuccessful military coup in Venezuela, against a hostile but elected President, Hugo Chavez.

Even today, President Bush supports undemocratic governments that are seen as helping in the War on Terrorism, such as Pakistan and some regimes in Central Asia. It's no wonder the world suspects that our country only cares about democracy as a tool to prevent more 9/11s.

So bravo for the idealistic side of the new Bush Doctrine and his willingness to confront hard truths. But his truth was not the whole truth. And in the War on Terrorism, credibility is the most important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.