March 8, 2005
WASHINGTON - President Bush hailed fresh signs of democracy in the Middle East on Tuesday, saying authoritarian rule is "the last gasp of a discredited past" and demanding that Syria withdraw from Lebanon.
"Freedom will prevail in Lebanon," Bush declared, rejecting the message from a demonstration in Beirut by nearly 500,000 pro-Syrian protesters who chanted anti-American slogans. Bush instead took sides with anti-Syrian demonstrators of recent days who have demanded that Damascus remove its 14,000 troops from Lebanon.
"All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience," Bush told the people of Lebanon. "The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side."
Bush spoke at the National Defense University, a center for professional military education.
Later, the White House offered a low-key reaction to the pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut. "We are glad to see people peacefully express their views in the town square, as they have done for days now," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "We hope the Lebanese people will be able to express their view at the ballot box through free elections without outside interference and outside intimidation."
Bush's speech was described as an update on the war on terrorism, a struggle that he linked with repressive conditions in the Middle East that he said give rise to extremism.
"The advance of hope in the Middle East requires new thinking in the region," the president said. "By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past."
Bush said the entire world has "an urgent interest in the progress and hope and freedom in the broader Middle East."
"Our duty is now clear," he said. "For the sake of our long-term security, all free nations must stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East."
Bush's speech on terrorism marked a return to the trademark theme of his successful re-election campaign. After the election, Bush turned his focus to an uphill battle to radically redesign the Social Security program by offering personal investment accounts, a step that would be accompanied by a reduction in future benefits.
While more than half of Americans oppose his Social Security overhaul, a solid majority approve of his handling of the terrorism fight.
"In this war on terror America is not alone," Bush said. "Many governments have awakened to the dangers we share and have begun to take serious action. Global terror requires a global response and America is more secure today because dozens of other countries have stepped up to the fight."
He credited Pakistan with capturing more than 100 extremists last year, and said Britain had arrested an al-Qaida operative who had provided detailed reports on possible American targets to senior al-Qaida leaders. Bush also cited efforts by Germany, the Philippines and Poland.
He said that spreading democracy in the Middle East was essential to winning the war on terrorism. He said prospects for democracy "have seemed frozen in place for decades. Yet at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun."
Bush cited progress in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as an uprising in Lebanon against Syria's occupation.
"Across the Middle East, a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful new direction," the president said. "History is moving quickly and leaders in the Middle East have important choices to make," the president said.
"The world community, including Russia and Germany and France and Saudi Arabia and the United States, has presented the Syrian government with one of those choices: to end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or become even more isolated from the world."
Bush also linked Syria with an deadly suicide attack in Israel.
"America and other nations are also aware that the recent terrorist attack in Tel Aviv was conducted by a radical Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus," Bush said. "Syria as well as Iran has a long history of supporting terrorist groups determined to sow division and chaos in the Middle East. And there's every possibility they will try this strategy again.
"The time has come for Syria and Iran to stop using murder as a tool of policy and to end all support for terrorism," the president said.