DURING HIS FIRST four years in office, President Bush made impressive strides toward achieving the improbable goal laid out in his second inaugural address--"ending tyranny in our world." American troops liberated 50 million people and midwived representative governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States also provided important support to peaceful uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan.
The ripples of those revolutions reverberated throughout the greater Middle East, long the major breeding ground of anti-Western terrorism. At a minimum, tyrants felt compelled to pay lip service to American demands that they curtail support for terrorism and show greater respect for human rights. Syria's Bashar Assad pulled his occupation army out of Lebanon; Hosni Mubarak promised to hold genuine electoral contests in Egypt; the Saudi royal family deigned to hold elections for municipal councils.
In the last year, however, the global momentum for democratization has palpably slowed and in some places reversed course altogether. Vladimir V. Putin has crushed all competing centers of power in Russia. Belarus, the only other dictatorship left in Europe, held fraudulent elections that confirmed Alexander G. Lukashenko's death grip on power. The same thing happened in Kazakhstan, where president-for-life Nursultan A. Nazarbayev claimed to have won more than 90% of the vote. Next door in Uzbekistan, security forces gunned down hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan and then tried to cover up the massacre.
The same worrisome trend is observable in the Middle East. The Iranian ayatollahs have stepped up their campaign of torturing, jailing and executing dissidents. The Assad regime has arrested more opposition figures at home and continues to intimidate anti-Syrian activists in Lebanon. And, most glaring of all, modern-day pharaoh Mubarak has imprisoned his leading liberal opponent and renewed the draconian "emergency law" that allows indefinite detention of anyone who challenges his rule.
What's going on? Well, no one--not even Bush--ever said that the course of liberty would be smooth and easy. Entrenched elites have an obvious incentive to resist giving up power, and they now feel free to do so because they think that Bush, a lame-duck president with approval ratings in the low 30s, is too feeble to resist.
The despots reckon, not without reason, that they can simply wait out the current occupant of the White House. They know that the odds of vigorous action from the United States are slim given how many U.S. troops are tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq. The continuing turmoil in Iraq and Hamas' takeover of the Palestinian Authority--signs of the supposed dangers of too much freedom--provide further pretexts for repression.
In his remaining 986 days in office, Bush has a choice: Either he can sit back and allow the resurgence of the dictators, or he can fight back with the considerable power still at his command. His recent decision to grant a coveted White House reception to Ilham Aliyev isn't a good sign because the president of oil-rich Azerbaijan blatantly rigged his nation's parliamentary elections just six months ago. If Bush wants to show that he is still serious about promoting "the expansion of freedom," he could begin by making an example of Egypt.
Mubarak is reputedly one of Washington's closest friends in the Arab world, yet he has been among the most brazen in defying Bush's demands for greater openness while force-feeding his 78 million subjects a steady diet of anti-American and anti-Semitic drivel. His vow to hold multiparty presidential elections produced a suspect ballot last fall in which he secured 88% of a feeble turnout. Afterward, he consigned his chief challenger, Ayman Nour, to five years' hard labor on trumped-up charges of forging signatures to qualify for the ballot. The subsequent parliamentary election was even more dubious; ruling party goons used violence and fraud to keep the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, from winning too many seats. Now Mubarak's minions are roughing up peaceful demonstrators who support brave judges in their demand for greater independence and less electoral fraud.
Why, oh why, is this repugnant regime still getting $2 billion a year in American subsidies? Take the money away from Mubarak and give it to democracy-promotion programs across the Middle East. That would be a shot heard 'round the world. Failing such a signal, the dictators will become bolder and more brazen in defying what Bush once called "the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity."
Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This column originally appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times.