US Dials Back the Volume on 'Democracy' ; Bush's Public Pronouncements on Islamic Democratization Take on a Softer Tone, as His Recent Trip to Pakistan Showed

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President Bush has begun to soften his tone on the urgency of democratizing Muslim countries, lately choosing more cautious words that some experts say are a better match with his administration's modest political goals for countries ranging from Morocco to Pakistan.

The change so far is subtle. But the rise to power of Hamas, the radical Islamist group, through US-backed elections in the Palestinian territories and the difficulty of implanting democratic governance in Iraq are prompting Mr. Bush to soft-pedal his pronouncements.

The cautious approach is likely to continue at least until the administration sorts out how to respond to the new realities, experts say - leaving the Middle East peace process and other pressing regional matters hanging in the balance.

"A debate is raging within the administration. They are taking a second look at the entire process of exerting pressure on authoritarian rulers in the Middle East," says Fawaz Gerges, a foreign policy expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "There is no certainty over what to do, but we are hearing a rhetoric that is less intensive and more nuanced than just a few weeks ago."

What some observers call the administration's "crusade for dramatic change" is being supplanted by more tempered language, seen in officials' references to long-term goals of democracy's bloom and in initiatives that promote reforms without upsetting stability in the Muslim world.

Moderation from Bush and Rice

The adjustment was evident last weekend in Pakistan, where Bush spoke merely of a "hope" for democracy. He also skirted pro- democracy opposition leaders that some reform advocates had encouraged him to meet.

It was also on display when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled recently to Egypt. There, she referred to certain "setbacks" to political openness in Egypt, but did not directly call President Hosni Mubarak's government on the carpet.

"Middle East rulers are delighted at the prospect of a less demanding stance from the American government," says Mr. Gerges, noting that Secretary Rice did not publicly upbraid the Egyptian government for putting off local elections for two years.

Some rulers in the Islamic world may be breathing sighs of relief, but experts say that what may be happening with US government circles is a dovetailing of rhetoric and action.

"The policy of the Bush administration concerning democracy- building always proceeded along two tracks, with rhetoric that was somewhat far-reaching accompanied by the second level of actual diplomatic contacts with Arab countries, which have been very cautious," says Marina Ottaway, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Citing the Middle East Partnership Initiative - Bush's 2002 program that focuses on areas such as education, women's rights, entrepreneurship, and democracy-building - she notes that such initiatives will not "shake the boat in any country very much."

As for administration rhetoric, the most noticeable change is that concerning Iraq, says Ms. …