Bush took issue with those who argue that the Middle East is culturally or religiously incapable of becoming democratic. And he insisted that Arab countries should have the right to develop democracy in ways that suit their cultures and values.
The president said little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but blamed "Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform" for the lack of progress toward peace.
He also pointed mild but direct criticism toward two critical allies -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region," Bush said. "The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official in the Bush administration, said the speech sends the message that "Islam and democracy are compatible."
"It's not meant to change things overnight, but it's essentially a signal that the U.S. is no longer going to sustain what you might call a democratic exception for the Islamic world," Haass said.
But James M. Lindsay, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was important to note that Bush used the word "freedom" more frequently than "democracy," suggesting that the administration is still reluctant to engage in the long, slow work of building democratic institutions.
"It's as if he means that the contribution America can make is taking out tyrants and giving other people the opportunity to develop democracy on their own," Lindsay said. "We deliver freedom, and it's up to them to build democracy."
Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to several Arab countries, said he doubted the speech would be well-received in the region because suspicion of U.S. motives -- and Bush -- was so intense.
"People will probably misinterpret it as another example of 'democratic imperialism,'" Walker said. "The speech touched the right tone, but it's not going to be heard."
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.