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.
"It's democracy lite," said Dmitri K. Simes, a scholar at the conservative Nixon Center in Washington. "It's like apple pie. Who could disagree with the idea that the people of the Middle East deserve democracy? The question is, what credible steps are you prepared to take to get there? What are you willing to spend in soldiers' lives?"
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.
"Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not and should not look like us. Democratic nations may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics or parliamentary systems. And working democracies always need time to develop, as did our own," Bush said.
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.