In trying to find a rhetorical justification for invading the sovereign nation of Iraq, President George W. Bush stumbled via the back door into the “spreading democracy” rationale. Yet this rhetoric—which is at the same time both idealistic and opportunistic—is leading to policies that are far reaching and have counterproductive consequences worldwide.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and the 9/11 commission and others dismissed any operational connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, a desperate Bush administration latched onto the war rationale of “making Iraq and the Middle East democratic.” The idea was that a newly free Iraq would put pressure on neighboring autocracies, such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to liberalize their governance.

Then, to cover up the fact that such “save Iraq and the Middle East” rhetoric was merely window dressing to use as a last ditch justification for war, the president, in his second inaugural address, upped the ante again. To pretend that the reckless invasion of Iraq was part of grander plan all along, he spoke of spreading democracy around the world.

The world hasn’t seen a “do-gooder” American president with such a grandiose plan since Jimmy Carter’s public campaign for global human rights. And who said only soft headed, touchy-feely Democrats are naïve?

There are several problems with wearing human rights advocacy on your sleeve. The first is that merely holding a vote doesn’t mean that a country will eventually be free. Even the Nazis in Germany initially took power by a democratic election. In the case of Iraq, we are a long way from having a genuine republic that safeguards the human rights of minorities. The second problem, which Carter experienced acutely, is that rhetorically lambasting countries publicly about their human rights policies or their domestic systems of governance often leads to a vitriolic response. For example, the more Carter (and other presidents) pressured China to improve its human rights conditions, the more the Chinese government cracked down on dissent. Other governments feel that the U.S. government should worry about affairs within its own borders rather than meddling in their affairs.

In a Carteresque manner, President Bush recently demanded that Russia “must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.” He further lectured: “We must always remind Russia...that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law—and the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia.” Certainly Russia has seen an erosion of freedom through the reassertion of government control over the media, a recentralization of power to the Kremlin from Russia’s hinterlands, state seizure of private businesses, and the political arrest of prominent businessmen who were critical of the Putin regime. Freedom House, an organization that rates countries on how free they are, recently moved Russia into the “not free” category. But the important question is how the United States should deal with those realities.

Although Jimmy Carter’s presidency has been excessively criticized, he did find out that publicly nagging countries about their human rights policies had a counterproductive effect. Many times the countries, notably China, cracked down on dissidents just to show that they would not kowtow to U.S. desires. Similarly, Bush administration pressure on Russia about its eroding freedoms has raised the hair on the back of Yuri Ushakov, the Russian ambassador to the United States. This reaction could very well morph into an “in your face” Russian government tightening the reins on its civil society.

Thus, much as Carter discovered that grandiose public U.S. rhetoric about human rights and democracy can actually harm the common people in the targeted country, President Bush is on the road to relearning the same lesson the hard way.

Instead, the president can be more effective by privately letting autocratic regimes know that the United States is watching their behavior toward dissidents, human rights, and democratic practices. Even more important, the U.S. government can ensure that freedom flourishes within its own borders so that the United States can lead by example. The post-9/11 prison torture scandals and passage of the draconian USA PATRIOT Act, which clamped down on civil liberties, have smudged that image. Ending torture as a U.S. policy and repealing the PATRIOT Act would go a long way toward restoring the American image as a beacon of liberty.