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
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
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
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. …