President Bush has made promoting democracy the cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda during his second term. Whether Washington should play such a role, and how far it should go in fostering democracy abroad, has been the subject of a lively debate. A panel of U.S. academics and foreign policy analysts says the United States and other free countries have a special obligation to stand behind fledgling democratic movements, especially in the Middle East.
The analysts say they see a wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the world in countries from the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan to Ukraine in Eastern Europe.
At a symposium hosted by the Washington based research organization the American Enterprise Institute, AEI, the group of policy experts said the democratic reform has been inspired by political changes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Panelist Richard Perle, an AEI scholar and a former chairman of President Bush's Defense Policy Board, says America has an important role to play in helping the fledgling democracies.
"There are freedom movements now in every country of importance," he noted. "And it seems very clear to me that we will start to see the cumbersome machinery of our government designing programs to assist people who are fighting for freedom around the world. And we should do so without apology."
Mr. Perle says the promotion of democracy could include what he called "obstacles," including the ouster of tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein. He says the spread of democracy in the Middle East and Iraq would not have been possible without toppling Saddam.
But, other foreign policy experts disagree. Marina Ottaway, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, says it is too soon to tell if some of the political changes in the world, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are a triumph for democracy.
"The on-the-ground efforts made by Europe or by the United States have had some impact on the margins, but are never the more determinant cause or element of a democratic transition," she said.
Ms. Ottoway adds that it is still uncertain what will happen in Iraq. She says often an unpopular regime is not followed by democratic change, but instead civil strife or a dictatorship.
But, overall, the panelists at the American Enterprise Institute were optimistic about Iraq's chance for democracy. And, they say the Muslim world is becoming more receptive to the notion of democratic governance.
Michael Rubin, an Arab political scholar, says in some parts of the Middle East, the desire for freedom is overcoming government repression. He says in Syria, the popularity of blogs, or Internet journals, are aiding democratic reform.
"Syria can try to crackdown on the Internet. But the fact of the matter is, that Lebanon has always been the economic escape valve, and people can simply dial into Lebanon," he said. "People can use phones and satellite TV's to get around the restrictions. Liberty extends not only to politics but to the freedom to communicate and share ideas.
Mr. Rubin adds that the United States and other free countries must keep up the momentum of promoting democracy, or else risk seeing a backsliding of freedom movements around the world.