In a recent speech, President George W. Bush attempted to “spin” his way out of the current debacle in Iraq by upping the ante. Going beyond the recently resuscitated goal of bringing democracy to Iraq (after no weapons of mass destruction were found there, and the president had to admit that Saddam Hussein had no link to the September 11 attacks), the president has now proposed to democratize the Middle East and the world. But the situation in Iraq vividly illustrates the pitfalls of muscular U.S. efforts to bring democracy to nations that have little experience with a democratic culture. Instead of pressuring other countries to liberalize at gunpoint or with implied threats, a more effective strategy would be to avoid such undemocratic methods and lead by peaceful example.

Critics of U.S. foreign policy overseas often use the word “hypocrisy” to describe American actions. U.S. leaders have often adopted the high-flying rhetoric of exporting freedom to the world, while supporting petty dictators or overthrowing democratically elected leaders that didn’t toe the U.S. line. Bush’s speech continues that divergence.

In his comments, the president treated countries the United States considers “rogue regimes” (Syria, Cuba, Burma and North Korea) much harsher than “friendly” states (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and powerful nations (China). He declared that dictators in Syria left “a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin.” The president correctly accused Cuba, Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea of being “outposts of oppression in our world.”

Such harsh rhetoric, however, should be compared with the praise the president doled out for at best slight advances in political freedom by the equally tyrannical regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China. Egypt, which has made no progress at all, got this timid, but gushing, nudge: “The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” Similarly, Bush praised the despotic, medieval Saudi regime as “taking first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections.” And the president is confident that the leaders of China--a powerful nation that has enormous potential as a market for U.S. exports--“will also discover that freedom is indivisible--that social and religious freedom is also essential to national greatness and national dignity.” He also found something nice to say about progress in the autocratic, but “friendly,” countries of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait and Jordan.

If that glaring double standard is not enough, President Bush’s speech excoriated the Palestinians: “The Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform, and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all. They’re the main obstacles to peace, and to the success of the Palestinian people.” No matter that the Palestinians elected Yasir Arafat as their president, but Bush--to comply with the wishes of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--refuses to negotiate with him.

Although the security ministries in Iran are still controlled by undemocratic forces, Iran is more democratic than the vast majority of countries in the Middle East. Yet the president offered praise for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but not for the less friendly Iran.

And the state of freedom in Russia, another powerful nation that has recently been compliant with U.S. wishes, was not even mentioned in the president’s speech. The awkward public silence from the Bush administration occurs at a time when Russia may be regressing toward authoritarianism. Behind a veil of anonymity, administration officials express alarm that President Vladimir Putin could be coming under the influence of hardliners, abusing his power and repressing dissent. The Russian government has closed independent media outlets and recently arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the nation’s richest man and potential political rival to Putin. Yet U.S. officials argue that American silence is justified by Putin’s cooperation in confronting Iran and North Korea and acceptance of U.S. trashing of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, of expansion of NATO into the territory of the old Soviet Union and of an American military presence in former Soviet Central Asia.

Thus, the world will regard President Bush’s speech as more of the same from the Americans: realpolitik cloaked in self-righteous rhetoric. But there may be worse consequences of Bush’s policy. Reading between the lines in the speech, the administration is trying to use the U.S. invasion of Iraq to intimidate Syria, Iran and other nations into “democratic reforms.” In the president’s words, “Iraqi democracy will succeed--and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran--that freedom can be the future of every nation.” But many experts on the Middle East believe that overt U.S. pressure, whether subtle or heavy-handed, to hurry democracy could lead to something worse taking the place of existing authoritarian regimes--elected radical Islamic governments. In today’s autocratic societies in the Middle East, the only alternative to the ruling regimes that has not been shut down is the mosques.

A better option for U.S. policy than applying heavy pressure: let Middle Eastern and other societies accept freedom at their own pace and act as a beacon of liberty and peace for them to emulate.