By TOM RAUM
President Bush sees the world as a struggle between good and evil, but his push for democracy often collides with geopolitical reality.
Free elections handed power to Palestinian militants and led to a fractious government in Iraq. And he associates with leaders from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and authoritarian Mideast states that don’t necessarily practice what he preaches.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Bush depicted the U.S. as leading the charge to defeat the forces of darkness and to spread freedom and democracy, particularly in the Middle East. "It is the calling of our generation," he said.
The refrain was echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney. "We know that the hopes of the civilized world ride with us," Cheney told an audience in Washington.
But the formulation doesn’t always serve U.S. interests.
Bush commonly brushes aside the democracy debate to stand with hardline leaders who happen to be terror-war allies or economic partners.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf — a general who seized power in a coup — will be at the White House on Friday and again next week. The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, will be there Sept. 29. The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, visited in April.
Human rights groups have criticized all three leaders. No matter. The two former Soviet republics are oil-rich allies in the war on terrorism and Musharraf is the leading U.S. partner in the Muslim world.
"The United States turns a blind eye to human rights abuses when it seems politically expedient," said Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch.
"The failure to uphold standards of democracy and push for some of the issues that President Bush has identified as being top in his mind erodes the U.S.’s ability to criticize other countries like Iran," said Zarifi, the group’s Asia research director.
On Pakistan, human rights activists have said Bush should press Musharraf to restore civilian rule, end discrimination against women and stop using torture and arbitrary detention in counterrorism operations.
Bush remains on chummy terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite Putin’s moves to centralize authority and to restrict press and political freedoms. And in pushing for wider trade with China, Bush ignored complaints of democracy activists and evangelicals about Beijing’s religious persecutions.
Meanwhile, democracy has not always turned out the way Bush had hoped.
A military coup suspended democratic government in Thailand this week. The militant Hamas group, sworn to Israel’s destruction, swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. Iraq’s elections produced a wobbly government that took months to form and fundamentalist Shiite leaders wield far-reaching influence amid rising sectarian violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned Thursday that efforts to build democracy in his country had suffered setbacks and that terrorism was rebounding, especially in the volatile south.
Emile A. Nakhleh, a recently retired top CIA expert on Islamic politics and institutions, said the U.S. "lost a generation of goodwill" in the Muslim world.
"The president’s democratization and reform program for the Middle East has all but disappeared, except for official rhetoric," Nakhleh said in an interview posted on Harper’s Magazine Web site Wednesday.
In Bush’s good vs. evil world, there are certain leaders he refuses to meet, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In a General Assembly speech, Chavez on Wednesday called Bush "the devil…. He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world."
The day before, Ahmadinejad criticized U.S. policies in Iraq and Lebanon and accused Washington of abusing its veto power in the Security Council after Bush sought to assure Muslims he is not waging war with Islam.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration stands by its hope that "all the people in the region will be able to achieve a democracy in which they’re able to speak freely and pursue their destinies freely."
Bush refused throughout his first term to meet with longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. Bush did meet in New York on Wednesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate with limited authority since the Hamas victory.
Bush still is pushing for a democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel. But, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams told reporters: "He’s well aware of the fact that conditions may, in the end, not exist to make it possible."
Bush, Cheney, and other administration officials often exaggerate the nature of the battle against Islamic terrorists, suggested Dan Benjamin, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I don’t think it’s a struggle for civilization," Benjamin said. "I don’t see any states being seized by jihadists anytime soon."
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press