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Bush the Crusader

To President Bush, Saddam Hussein isn't just another terrorist snake to be snuffed out. Iraq itself is ground zero for the US to drain the Middle East swamp of terrorists by planting the region with saplings of democracy.

A Bush overhaul of these ancient lands of authoritarian rule has already begun, even before a unilateral American invasion of Iraq.

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He's already promised statehood to Palestinians within three years if they replace Yasser Arafat in an election. Mr. Bush has informed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the US will deny additional aid to Egypt because of its treatment of human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

And in a July broadcast to "Iran's people," the president promised US support as they "move toward a future defined by greater freedom."

This is just Bush being Reagan, his model for staking out a vision based on American principles. In the Middle East, he's following the former president's gesture in Berlin in 1987 and essentially declaring to the region's despots: "Tear down this wall."

"My job isn't to nuance," Bush has said. "My job is to say what I think. I think moral clarity is important."

He's also like many presidents of the 20th century, starting with Woodrow Wilson, who tried to lead the world in adopting democracy.

Democracy is the antidote to Islamic terrorism, as it was to Nazi fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet communism. Bush sees himself, like his predecessors, carrying the flag of democratic ideals to the Middle East.

President Reagan, in particular, declared in 1982 that the US would intervene to promote democratic change in countries outside the Soviet Union, after it became clear that US support for anticommunist dictators was backfiring.

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That effort succeeded in the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and much of Latin America. Africa, too, is slowly rejecting its dictators. Two-thirds of the world's 192 countries now have democratically elected governments.

Bush may see the Middle East as the world's biggest holdout. He may even seen this cause as larger and more lasting than the goal of dismantling Arab support for Al Qaeda or preemptively ending the presumed threat of Iraqi nuclear weapons.

Most Arabs would agree they want more say in how they are governed, even as they reject many aspects of the West. And it's difficult to fault Bush in his idealism. But can a president who disavowed nation-building and many international treaties really pull it off?

That's a question as urgent as whether the US should now invade Iraq. Bush's efforts to democratize Afghanistan are faltering. Is the US ready to take on the Arab world, too?