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To fight terror, Bush plays democracy card

But his rhetoric calling for reforms may offend some key allies.

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Everyone agreed the intolerant, antiwomen – and pro-Al Qaeda – Taliban had to go.

But then President Bush decided Yasser Arafat must bow out in favor of a democratic Palestinian Authority. Next, the long-held US objective of ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein began progressing to a point of no return, with replacement by a democratic regime one of the goals. Last week, the Bush administration gathered representatives of the "democratic" Iraqi opposition in Washington to demonstrate its commitment to a new Iraq.

In this atmosphere, some people are even making noises about the royal regime in Saudi Arabia, demanding that the US step up pressure for change there.

A pattern appears to be emerging here: The Bush White House is increasingly playing a democracy card – at least rhetorically – as one of its moves in the war on terrorism, Mideast experts say. But as it proceeds, they add, an administration that can prefer things in black and white faces a growing dilemma: how to treat key friendly – but not-so-democratic – regimes.

"The US has traditionally recognized that the nature of these regimes – in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, wherever – has been a major factor in the rise of Islamic extremism," says James Noyes, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., and a former Pentagon official involved in Mideast affairs. "But now that we're particularly concerned about that extremism, we're caught between advocating freedom to address the problem and demanding more oppression to round up the extremists."

What seems clear is that White House rhetoric and America's international war on terrorism have made a connection between democracy and the long-term rooting out of Islamic extremism. What is less certain is whether the US will take this connection a step further – shifting from a traditional preoccupation with regional stability and access to oil, particularly in the Middle East, to pressing friend and foe alike in the Arab and Muslim worlds for democratic governance.

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