PRAGUE - GEORGE BUSH has sought to breathe new life into his campaign to spread democracy and end despotism across the world, declaring that "extremists, radicals, and tyrants" - not the US - were seeking to impose their values on other countries.
In Tuesday's speech in Prague, the scene of 1989's Velvet Revolution and a vibrant symbol of a successful shift from totalitarianism to democracy, the US President admitted failures in his second-term pledge to advance global liberty. But he insisted 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.
Mr Bush criticised the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for "derailing" political reforms and said he had strong disagreements with the Chinese leadership. Iran was in thrall to "a handful of extremists pursuing nuclear weapons", and he attacked the "shallow populism" of the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. 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."
The attempt to revive the "freedom agenda" that Mr Bush promised three years ago was politely applauded by the dissidents and activists from 17 countries selected as his audience.
Many fear that as a result of the policies of the Bush Administration, the forces for democratic change were now in retreat.
"Democracy promotion is in a bit of a crisis at the moment," said Pavol Demes, a Slovak analyst involved in toppling dictators or authoritarian leaders 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, a former Soviet "refusenik" and Israeli cabinet minister whose book The Case for Democracy is said to have inspired Mr Bush, 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 tried to talk up the promise of democratic breakthroughs, expectations are being scaled down among campaigners on the front line of regime change. Following a 15-year period from 1989 to 2004 that saw communism collapse, hybrid authoritarian regimes crumble and people 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.
In the era of the US prisons in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, 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 soured, analysts say, 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.
A former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, said that in the Middle East, Islamism and not democracy is the most dynamic political force.
An Iraqi-American academic, Kanan Makiya, said the US failure in Iraq had done much to discredit Western evangelising on freedom and democracy.
Only two years ago, following the dramatic series of 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 conspired to counter this trend. First, bogged down in Iraq and consumed with Iran, the Bush 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, Mr Putin has learnt the lessons of the "colour revolutions" and is cleverly mimicking the tactics and strategies of Western non-government organisations 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 putting left-wing populists in power with an agenda challenging Washington. "Our side is getting completely outplayed," Mr Jackson said.
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.