ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A little over two years ago, President Bush laid out a strategy for fighting the war on terror which included this commitment to transformational change in the Middle East.
President GEORGE W BUSH: To deny the militants' future recruits by replacing hatred and resentment with democracy and hope across the broader Middle East. This is difficult and it's a long term project, yet there is no alternative to it.
SIEGEL: Or is there? On this trip, some observers heard more emphasis on justice than democracy in the president's rhetoric. And when he spoke in Abu Dhabi, the president underscored what he described as successes in the movement toward democracy.
Pres. BUSH: Citizens have voted in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, in competitive parliamentary elections in Jordan and Morocco and Bahrain, and in a multiparty presidential election in Yemen. Across the world, the majority of Muslim people live in a free and democratic society, and the people of the Middle East must continue to work for the day. Well, that is also true of the lands that Islam first called home.
SIEGEL: Is democracy in the Middle East a credible aim of U.S. policy or does it run counter to Washington's interest in strategic partnerships with highly undemocratic regimes?
Well, joining us from New York to talk about this is Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International. Welcome back to the program, Fareed.
Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA (Editor, Newsweek International): Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, what, if anything, has changed in U.S. policy since President Bush first started pushing democratic reform in the Mid East as a U.S. interest?
Mr. ZAKARIA: The most important thing that's changed has been the unraveling of the Iraq idea. The other stuff is real, it's very small - the elections in Jordan and Morocco, both of which are, again, run pretty tightly by absolute monarchies. But most of the Arab world looks at Iraq and sees a country that is in inconceivable chaos - two million people have left. And most importantly, they don't see democracy, they see Shiite majority rule.
So in order to account for, you know, plan B as it were — plan A was that Iraq would show everyone, you know, the transformational nature of democracy, plan B is this much more modest, incremental approach focusing, as you said, on justice. Pointing to very, very small steps such as the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. I mean, to understand, Saudi Arabia is a country which is still running an almost medieval, monarchical fashion. So the point to the municipal elections there is a very small step.
SIEGEL: At the high watermark of President Bush's talking about democracy in the Mid East, Lebanon also seem to be an arena where democracy was on the rise.
Mr. ZAKARIA: Precisely. And it pointed to - and the elections of the Palestinian authority, you'll recall. In Lebanon, they empowered Hezbollah. In the Palestinian authority, they empowered Hamas. And then we refused to deal with the elected government in Gaza. All of which points to two things, it seems to me. One is, the process of modernization in these societies is very complicated. There's economic modernization, there's political modernization, which includes - but does not involve only democracy, there's also the rule of law, the institutions of liberty. And to simply focus in on one thing and assume it's going to happen, it takes a long time in this situations.
And the second part, which is, I think, the most important, is it points to the hypocrisy of the United States. Because we talk a lot about democracy, except in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In other words, all the countries that matter, we emphasize the stability of the present. And then when it comes to Burma, you know, strategically a relevant country, we beat the Chinese and the Indians on the head by saying, why aren't you more in favor of democracy? Well, they point out they'll have a million refugees if Burma implodes.
SIEGEL: Well, as you listen to another domestic debate over foreign policy, to the extent that there is one in the presidential primary campaigns, can you imagine a more coldly realistic foreign policy emerging in Washington, which says, let's face it, we don't care that much if a vital strategic partner passes our test for good government?
Mr. ZAKARIA: Well, in a sense, that position has been taken by its absence, by which I mean there aren't a lot of people calling on Musharraf to resign. There aren't a lot of people calling on the Saudis to engage in a democratic revolution, now that oil is $100 a barrel. In a strange sense, you have a kind of stealth realism returning to Washington. It's not that anyone will admit it, but they all seem to be pursuing a policy that's more Henry Kissinger than George W. Bush.
SIEGEL: Fareed Zakaria, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ZAKARIA: Pleasure.
SIEGEL: Fareed Zakaria spoke to us from New York where he is editor of Newsweek International.