Engendering democracy across the Middle East "must be a focus of American policy for decades to come," the president said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded foundation that promotes reform abroad.
However, the speech was his most detailed and far-reaching explanation of a theme he first sounded in the run-up to the war in Iraq. "The freedom we prize is not for us alone," he said, "it is the right and the capacity of all mankind."
The United States has long supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, partly because of the nation's need for oil from the region. Several countries in the region were also seen as allies in the superpower competition with the Soviet Union.
Bush took the uncharacteristic step of implicitly criticizing his predecessors, saying that previous policies were shortsighted.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," the president said.
Bush went further than he had in the past, singling out countries for criticism or commendation. He challenged Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the region, to embrace democracy and praised other Arab allies -- Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- for taking first steps toward political reform.
His speech came at a time when public opinion polls indicate that Americans are becoming anxious about setbacks -- and increasing casualties -- in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president urged Americans to take a long-term perspective on the conflict in Iraq. "Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for and standing for, and the advance of freedom leads to peace," he said.
Critics said the president's remarks were long on abstract principles and short on specific methods to achieve them.
Joseph S. Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said Bush's remarks reflected traditional foreign policy goals but appeared aimed at putting events in Iraq into a broader context.
"What Bush is doing here is quite consistent with a long strand of American foreign policy," Nye said. "But is he trying to put a democracy blanket over his Iraq policies? Yes."
Bush repeatedly evoked history, comparing the battle against Iraqi insurgents to U.S. assistance during the Greek civil war in 1947 and the Berlin airlift that began in 1948.
As then, he said, "the strength and will of free peoples are now being tested before a watching world. And we will meet this test."
He did not reprise past warnings about an "axis of evil." But Bush said that Iran, which he linked with Iraq and North Korea in coining the term, should "heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy."
He equated Syria with Iraq, noting that "dictators in Iraq and Syria promised the restoration of national honor, a return to ancient glories. They've left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin."
The president provided a new grouping of countries where the U.S. commitment to global democracy is being tested: Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea and Zimbabwe. He called those nations "outposts of oppression in our world."
The speech occurred before Bush signed a bill setting aside $87.5 billion to fund military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution," the president said.