Advocates for greater democracy in the Middle East cheered President Bush's renewed commitment to their cause Thursday, but some wondered whether the U.S. government was really willing to make the needed effort -- and whether it could overcome America's worsening image in the region.
Proponents said that if democracy took root in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could, as the administration contended, provide a beachhead for reform in the region.
At the same time, they noted that the Arab region has resisted change like few others in the world, and that U.S. governments in the past have, despite their rhetoric, shown limited desire to challenge the status quo.
Some reform advocates even worried that with anti-American sentiments on the rise throughout the region, a visible U.S. campaign for democratic change could hurt the fragile reform movements.
Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, said his opposition group, created this year, was "delighted that despite the administration's problems in Iraq, they still find it imperative to focus on democracy."
He was optimistic, he said, that the Bush administration would be able to find a variety of means to push governments to allow greater democracy, observe human rights and reform their economies.
At the same time, Ghadry said there was a risk that given the mistrust of U.S. motives, such a campaign could hurt reform groups like his.
"I call it the Ahmad Chalabi syndrome," he said, referring to the expatriate Iraqi financier and head of the Iraqi National Congress. Many of his countrymen are suspicious of him because of his close alliance with the United States.
For decades, U.S. governments have proclaimed a desire to bring greater democracy to the Middle East. Yet administrations of both parties focused most of their diplomacy on trying to maintain political stability, ease Israeli-Arab conflict and keep oil flowing.
Amy Hawthorne, a specialist in democratic reform at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said a major U.S. effort to make democracy-building a top priority would mark a "dramatic, historical shift in our policy."
But she said it remained to be seen whether the speech would usher in a major new effort, or whether its importance was more a way for Bush to offer a new rationale for the mission in Iraq.
"This could be more of a justification," she said.
Another question, Hawthorne said, was Washington's goal: Was it basically after friendlier governments, or did it want real democracy? Elections in Algeria, for example, have shown support for an Islamic regime.
The U.S. government has tried to foster democracy using two kinds of levers: aid programs and diplomatic pressure.
The administration's principal democracy reform program now is the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a $200-million effort established in December 2002 to promote reform in education, politics, the economy and the rights of women.
Hawthorne said it remained to be seen how far the U.S. government would push governments on which it relies. She noted, for example, that the Yemenis and Algerians, who traditionally have not been close U.S. allies, have become invaluable to the United States since Sept. 11 by providing intelligence on terrorist groups.
Shibley Telhami, a specialist in the Middle East at the University of Maryland, said he believed the president's speech would accomplish "very little, frankly."
Mistrust of the United States, as reflected in recent public opinion polls, Telhami said, is now at the highest levels ever recorded.
He said that while the first President Bush and former President Clinton had each declared that they would fight for a new era of democracy, "national security concerns have always trumped it, and democracy has always taken a back seat."
The United States is not pushing President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to be more democratic "as long as he's helping us," Telhami said.
"The real question is, 'Will the U.S. effort to champion this cause hurt the domestic reformers?' "