Last week, President Bush said it plainer than ever before: Palestinian democracy, not just an end to terrorism, is the essential precondition for any new U.S. peace efforts in the region.
With Palestinian elections only a month away, the Bush administration hopes the vote will serve as a launch pad for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a face-saving boost to its sagging Middle East democracy initiative. But the U.S. push for Palestinian democracy will be an outright disaster if it proves to be nothing more than the latest excuse for U.S. noninvolvement in Mideast peacemaking.
It is likely to have only limited impact if Bush refuses to invest any real diplomatic capital in imposing the same standards on some of his best and most undemocratic friends, starting with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Initially, the Bush administration had a straightforward approach to dealing with the Palestinians: end the terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and then we can talk about new peace negotiations.
As terrorism diminished -- the result of fierce Israeli action, not P.A. efforts -- the administration shifted its emphasis to the need for "new leadership" among the Palestinians and an end to endemic corruption. That was the gist of Bush's June 2002 speech forever casting Yasser Arafat into the diplomatic deep freeze.
But officials here didn't want too much democracy while Arafat was alive, fearing a new vote would just reaffirm his power. Now that Arafat is dead, the administration has resumed its active talk about Palestinian democratization and made it the new benchmark for improved U.S.-Palestinian relations.
Bush said it plainly last week during a visit to Canada: "As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy."
Bush was reportedly much taken with Natan Sharansky's argument in a recent book that you can't make peace with nondemocracies. Sharansky was a guest at the White House several weeks ago to expand on that concept.
However, the Bush administration's focus on democracy is far from universal. The president doesn't seem to care much that vital allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan are among the least democratic nations on the planet. Nor is he concerned that these countries have responded to the call for more democracy around the world with even more repression.
When the administration says that Saudi Arabia is a necessary element in any peaceful resolution of the region's woes, it isn't talking about some mythical democratic Saudi Arabia of the future but the oppressive, authoritarian, extremist-supporting Saudi Arabia of today.
Pakistan is a valued ally in the war against terror and never mind it is ruled by a repressive military dictatorship. It's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, came to power the old fashioned way -- through a coup d'état.
Over the weekend, there were reports the administration is retreating from even its limited demands for democratization elsewhere in the Middle East. Its selective vision on democracy building undermines the administration's goals both in the Palestinian territories and around the world.
Empowering those Palestinians who want representative and transparent government should be a goal of U.S. policy, especially in the run-up to the Jan. 9 elections to pick new leadership for the post-Arafat era.
But what, exactly, are the standards the Palestinians must meet to win U.S. approval? Does the election have to be entirely corruption free -- a standard Florida would be hard-pressed to meet?
And do the results have to be ones we approve of? If radicals get the nod from voters, will we simply declare the entire enterprise undemocratic and invalid?
The demand for Palestinian democracy will fall flat if it isn't coupled to energetic new U.S. peace efforts. In the past year, the U.S. demand for an end to Arafat's rule as a precondition for such efforts made sense, given the late leader's penchant for terrorism and gross corruption, but it also served as a handy excuse for an administration eager to avoid further entanglement in the region's woes, especially before the Nov. 2 U.S. elections.
Now, there are abundant hints the push for democracy -- laudable in itself -- might be serving the same function for an administration that is getting pressed by European and Arab allies to ratchet up its involvement, but which apparently has little stomach for it.
The Mideast double standard also undercuts the broader effort to make democratization the solid foundation of U.S. foreign policy around the world. Why should people in East Asia or Africa believe pious American words about democracy, when it continues to support their oppressive rulers?
Indeed, the U.S. hypocrisy in the pro-democratization thrust cheapens and undermines what should be an important shift in U.S. foreign policy.
Pushing for fair, open Palestinian elections in early January -- and pressing Israel to help make that possible -- are commendable goals. Setting unreasonable standards of democracy as a way of keeping the U.S. from being forced to engage in high-risk Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in the region is a formula for disaster in a region that badly needs active U.S. involvement.