Dubya’s Freedom Promise Will Be Hard to Keep

President Bush’s vow to spread freedom across the globe to assure U.S. security could place the nation at odds with old allies and countries that have proved helpful in the ongoing war on terrorism.

The new doctrine might also create dissonance between Bush and a man he considers a friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently moved to suppress civil liberties in a nation that once served as America’s primary Cold War rival.

In a speech delivered after taking the oath of office for his second four-year term, Bush focused on the spread of freedom, calling it “the best hope for peace in our world.”

“There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom,” Bush said.

The president left open how he intends to proceed in this “difficult” endeavor, saying only it might be achieved without military intervention _ though it remains a possibility _ and by granting favors to nations that comply.

The task is certainly ambitious. Freedom House, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and one-time Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie to serve as a voice for democracy and freedom, reports that less than half of the world’s countries _ 89 of them _ can be considered free. Another 54 are partially free while the remaining 49 countries are not free.

Many of those listed as “not free” are the usual suspects _ Cuba, North Korea and Libya, among others. But Freedom House also lists Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. friend in the Middle East and source of 20 percent of America’s imported oil, among the eight worst violators of political rights and civil liberties in the world. The king rules by decree in Saudi Arabia, and a forceful American push toward democracy could have repercussions on the relations between the two nations.

“Despite impressive rhetoric in support of democracy in the Middle East, the U.S. has long been the number one military, diplomatic and economic backer of repressive regimes in that part of the world, a pattern that has only been strengthened under the Bush administration,” said Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chairman of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

“It is important to remember that the 9/11 hijackers did not come from Iran, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Saddam’s Iraq or Taliban Afghanistan _ the autocratic countries most cited by the Bush administration as needing reform _ but from U.S.-backed dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,” he said.

Another country on Freedom House’s “not free” list is Pakistan, which the Bush administration has credited with providing assistance in the war on terror, particularly as it relates to neighboring Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. Elections conducted in 2002 where determined to be flawed by international observers and the military continues to wield significant control.

Despite that democratic backtracking, the White House is assuming a soft view of Pakistan.

“We embrace Pakistan as a vital ally in the war on terror and a state in transition toward a more moderate future,” Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing for secretary of state on Tuesday.

The largest roadblocks to the president’s “let freedom ring” policy could be two familiar names from the past _ Russia and China.

Freedom House downgraded Russia into the “not free” category this year, according to Executive Director Jennifer Windsor, because of “a growing trend under President Vladimir Putin to concentrate political authority, harass and intimidate the media and politicize the country’s law enforcement system.”

Those initiatives, Windsor said, represent “a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism in Russia.”

China, a major U.S. trading partner that has proved helpful in dealings with North Korea, has been on the “not free” list since its inception because its people are afforded few political freedoms and it remains engaged in human rights violations. Problematically, 60 percent of those living without freedom in the world reside under China’s jurisdiction.

To this point, the United States has displayed little inclination to push China, the recipient of about $35 billion in U.S. investment, toward democracy.

“We are building a candid, cooperative and constructive relationship with China that embraces our common interests but still recognizes our considerable differences about values,” Rice said.

There is some good news to be culled from the Freedom House report. Overall, freedom progressed worldwide in 2004 with 26 countries registering gains and 11 showing setbacks. Windsor said “some potentially positive steps forward” occurred in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the area of women’s rights and civic activism.

“Freedom and democracy have shown demonstrable resilience over the last few years despite tremendous global changes, not least those posed by international terrorism,” Windsor said.

(Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)