Some Democrats, after nearly a century of efforts to inject the ennobling quality of universal freedom and human rights into the heart of our foreign policy agenda, seem uneasy about this president’s recent focus on the idea. President Bush spoke with great eloquence in his second inaugural address about expanding freedom, and I was a little frustrated by the reception it received from some of my Democratic colleagues and friends around the world. The headline from the leading Green newspaper in Germany was “Bush Threatens More Freedom.” Democrats at home were more circumspect, but for many, it seems that distaste for the messenger obscured the truth of the message.

If ever there was a time that proved that “good policy makes good politics”–and that politics makes strange bedfellows–today’s global program to advance the cause of liberal democracy surely must be it.

What events are creating this critical mass the president is talking about? There’s January’s free elections in Iraq and Palestine, March’s free municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Mubarak’s commitment to allow competitive elections for president, and the Lebanese people’s demands for Syrian withdrawal and for free parliamentary elections.

I believe an enlightened American foreign policy, along with a little luck and a lot of perseverance, can help ensure that these developments will be remembered as seminal moments in a historic chain of events leading to a new era in the region. But it’s important not just politically, but also for the sake of sound policy, for us to remember accurately and honestly what happened and why.

If we have reached a true tipping point, it seems to have been generated by recent events that had little or nothing to do with the Iraqi invasion: Arafat’s death, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, and the increasingly vocal protests in Egypt. And in Iraq, while it cannot be denied that the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein was a necessary precondition, it was Ayatollah Sistani who insisted on early elections against the wishes of the White House. President Bush decided to accede to Sistani’s wishes and deserves kudos for showing firmness in sticking to the schedule.

Pro-democracy movements were underway throughout the Middle East before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon directed America’s attention to the region’s political developments. Bahrain, Turkey, Iran, and Jordan all saw different forms of democratic progress. No doubt, the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed enormously to the increasingly optimistic pro-democratic mood.

At the same time, other repercussions of our unilateral invasion and occupation may have had the opposite effect. The level of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East has skyrocketed, and a new generation of terrorists has been trained in the art of guerrilla warfare on the streets of Iraq. We may still succeed in Iraq; indeed, I believe we must. But our mishandling of the Iraq occupation has also allowed autocrats in the region to use the post-Saddam chaos as justification for denying their people more freedom. They say, “With us, life is stable and predictable. Without us, we will reap the whirlwind. Without us, radical fundamentalists will take our place.”

The president’s focus on expanding freedom and his clear rhetoric do make a difference. They help embolden moderates and modernizers and lift the fear of reprisals. Providing that kind of space is critical to progress. Still, there is a significant gap between the president’s rhetoric and his policies. This dichotomy risks undermining the credibility we’re trying to restore with modernizers throughout the Middle East. While the administration talks tough to dictatorial adversaries like Iran and North Korea, it rarely sustains the heat on illiberal partners like China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. After all, we need China to help roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. We need Russia’s help to assure the destruction of those loose nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of the wrong people, and to prevent Iran from going fully nuclear. We need Pakistan’s help to root out al Qaeda and the remainder of the Taliban. We need Egypt’s help on the Mideast peace process and in Iraq.

So, here’s the problem: The president’s very strength–the absolutism of his rhetoric–creates a very mixed message when it runs into the reality of our short-term security interests. It would help if the president acknowledged and explained that tension to the American people and others around the world.

Promoting democracy is tough sledding. We must go beyond rhetorical support and the passion of a single speech. It’s one thing to topple a tyrant; it’s another to put something better in his place.

The most effective, sustainable way to advocate democracy is to help those moderates and modernizers on the inside build democratic institutions such as political parties, an independent judiciary, a free media, a modern education system, a civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a private sector.

When elections are held without mature institutions of this kind, they tend to favor the most organized groups in those societies, which also tend to be the most radical. To put it another way, freedom and liberal democracy are not synonymous. The former without the latter is a recipe for chaos and the return to autocratic rule.

The Bush administration does not appear to get the distinction. And if it does, it’s not acting on it yet. Just follow the money. In next year’s budget, the administration has requested $120 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative–the signature democratic promotional front for the region–$30 million less than last year. It makes the same request it did last year for the National Endowment for Democracy, which has had great success in building political parties and NGOs, and in monitoring elections. It zeroes out regional democratic funds for North Africa and Asia. And the administration continues to channel most of its economic funds to our illiberal friends through their central governments instead of directly to independent actors.

We should be providing more of our money directly to NGOs to help train the journalists, judges, and political organizations that form the building blocks of a democratic society, rather than merely funding the autocratic governments that feel threatened by them. We should be building schools to compete with the madrassas, not giving open-ended assistance to the governments that use it to pay their bureaucrats’ salaries. Two years ago, I proposed the establishment of a private, non-profit Middle East Foundation. It would provide grants to those in the region working to promote a vibrant civil society, an independent media, political parties, the rule of law, modern education systems, human rights including women’s rights, and the private sector. The administration has embraced the idea and, with a little luck, it will become law this spring. But will we fund it?

Finally, combating poverty in failed states is as important as anything else in the quest to expand political freedom and change the conditions that breed extremism. Developmental assistance, debt relief, and education reform all must be part of our arsenal. Freedom from fear and freedom from want are flip sides of the democratic coin.

History is on democracy’s side. In 1775, there was not a single democracy in the world. After our revolution there was one. Now, there are 119 electoral democracies; 62 percent of the world’s governments. And, as the number of democracies increases still further, pressure will mount on the tyrannical outliers. We may be witnessing this very phenomenon as we speak today. Whatever obstacles lie ahead–and they are considerable–surely this historic shift should be enough to lift the hopes of Americans across the political spectrum, regardless of which party holds the White House.

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Joseph Biden

Joseph Biden is the 46th President of the United States.