George Bush last night sought to breathe new life into his administration's campaign to spread democracy and end despotism across the world, declaring that "extremists, radicals, and tyrants" - not America - were seeking to impose their values on other countries.
In a speech in Prague, the capital of 1989's Velvet Revolution and vibrant symbol of a successful shift from totalitarianism to democracy, the US president conceded failures in his second-term pledge to advance global liberty. But he insisted that his controversial campaign would pay off in the end.
"The freedom agenda is making a difference," he told an audience of campaigners and dissidents eager for greater support from the US but increasingly worried about the anti-democratic backlash from Russia to the Middle East.
"Freedom can be resisted and freedom can be delayed, but freedom can't be denied," stated Mr Bush in the first speech of a week-long trip to Europe.
Mr Bush criticised President Vladimir Putin for "derailing" political reforms and said he had strong disagreements with the Chinese leadership. He said Iran was in thrall to "a handful of extremists pursuing nuclear weapons" and attacked the "shallow populism" of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. He admitted US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan "have a great distance still to travel" on the road to democracy.
"There will be triumphs and failures. Ending tyranny cannot be achieved overnight," Mr Bush admitted. "America can maintain a friendship and push a nation towards democracy at the same time."
The attempt to revive the "freedom agenda" that he promised three years ago was politely applauded by the dissidents and activists from 17 countries selected as his audience.
But the mood among the activists, analysts, and politicians, many of them architects of revolutions over the past 18 years or dissidents threatened by regimes at home, was one of growing scepticism and feeling beleaguered.
Many fear that as a result of the policies of the Bush administration, the forces for democratic change were now on the retreat rather than on the march.
"Democracy promotion is in a bit of a crisis at the moment," said Pavol Demes, a Slovak, an analyst involved in toppling dictators or authoritarians in Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine over the past decade. "The war on terrorism and the use of force has complicated everything. It's all connected with the Bush policies. People link democracy promotion with the war in Iraq. Exporting democracy has become highly ideological and controversial."
Natan Sharansky is a former Soviet "refusenik" and Israeli cabinet minister whose book Power of Democracy is said to have inspired Mr Bush. He said he credited the president with making the freedom agenda an international priority, but added that "I and others have disagreements and criticisms".
While the White House attempted to talk up the promise of democratic breakthroughs, expectations are being scaled down among campaigners on the frontline of regime change. Following a 15-year period from 1989 to 2004 that saw communism collapse, hybrid authoritarian regimes crumble and people's power triumph, there was a pervasive sense that the tide has turned.
"That period seems to have ended. Now we're looking at democracy as a contested proposition," said Bruce Jackson, head of the Washington-based Project on Transitional Democracies.
If the heady days of the Velvet or Orange revolutions have faded, freedom fighters and democracy campaigners are now having to contend with a strong backlash against US-prescribed values. In the era of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, American lectures on democracy have little purchase. Instead, a dynamic counter-revolution in Russia, central Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, appears to be under way.
Ukraine's Orange revolution has turned sour, analysts noted, predicting that Russia and not the west could turn out to be the victor of the upheavals in Kiev by playing a longer game. Lebanon now appears to be embroiled in its biggest crisis since the 1980s despite the promise of the Cedar revolution of a couple of years ago.
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, attacked the "double standards" of the US and the west. "The free world has become a supporter of autocracy. That's how Europe and the US are operating in the Arab world."
Such double standards, the Bulgarian democracy advocate, Ivan Krastev, wrote recently, "will fuel anti-American sentiment and make US-supported democracy assistance much more vulnerable to criticism and denunciation."
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, said that in the Middle East Islamism and not democracy is currently the most dynamic political force.
Hanging over the entire debate like the sword of Damocles, said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi-American academic, is the US failure in Iraq that had done so much to discredit western evangelising on freedom and democracy.
Only two years ago, following the dramatic series of "colour" revolutions that toppled regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon, the mood among democracy campaigners was gung-ho and fresh upheavals were predicted for Belarus, Azerbaijan, and central Asia.
Analysts say several factors have since conspired to counter this trend.
First, bogged down in Iraq and consumed with Iran, the US administration has cut funds for bolstering democracy elsewhere and lost interest.
Second, the European Union, which exercises powerful leverage in entrenching democracy in the Balkans and post-Soviet Europe, has grown tired of enlargement and no longer offers strong enough incentives to countries clamouring for European integration.
Third, President Putin has learned the lessons of the "colour revolutions" and is cleverly mimicking the tactics and strategies of western NGOs and activists to mobilise his "counter-revolution" against democracy at home.
Finally, free elections in the Middle East are bringing anti-western Islamists to power while free elections in Latin America are also putting leftwing populists in power with an agenda challenging Washington.
"It's a perfect storm of anti-democratic conditions," said Mr Jackson.
"Our side is getting completely outplayed."
© 2007 The Guardian