Bush: Dictators have had their day in the Middle East

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In his most uncompromising tone yet, President George Bush yesterday told repressive regimes in the Middle East - some of them longstanding US allies - that they must change their ways and meet demands for reform across the region.

In his most uncompromising tone yet, President George Bush yesterday told repressive regimes in the Middle East - some of them longstanding US allies - that they must change their ways and meet demands for reform across the region.

"Authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future, it is the last gasp of a discredited past," Mr Bush declared, serving notice that in his second term he intended to step up the pressure from Washington for democratic change in the Middle East.

As proof - and as hundreds of thousands of people took part in a pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut denouncing Western "interference" - the President for the first time gave Damascus a specific two-month deadline to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

President Bashar Assad had an "important" choice to make, Mr Bush declared in a wide-ranging speech to the National Defence University here. He could withdraw all military and intelligence personnel before the presidential election in May, or face "even greater isolation from the world". Those elections should be fully monitored by international observers.

With the confidence of a man who believes events in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are proving him right, Mr Bush again argued that economic prosperity and above all political reform were key to long-term victory in the "war on terrorism".

"Clearly and suddenly the thaw has begun," he said, referring to the changes across the region in the past few weeks, particularly since Iraq's election on 30 January. He repeated the phrase that became the leitmotif of his inaugural address 10 days before that vote, proclaiming America's "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." In words aimed at traditional American allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he warned that in the transformed post 9/11 world, they could no longer automatically count on Washington's support, no matter what their domestic policies.

Too often in the past "tyranny had been accommodated in the interests of stability," Mr Bush said. But today there was no chance of economic progress without political modernisation. No society, moreover "can advance with only half of its talent and energy - and that demands the full participation of women".

And in this struggle for democracy, Lebanon was in the front line. Making no mention of the country's deep sectarian divisions - reflected in this week's demonstrations in Beirut - Mr Bush declared that "freedom will prevail in Lebanon". Anyone who doubted the appeal of freedom should look to Lebanon, and if it took root, "it will ring on the doors of every Arab regime".

Again, Mr Bush seemed to imply that Washington would tolerate new governments that did not share America's world view. Each country would take a different road to reform, "but each one that takes the journey should know that America will walk at its side." Only events will prove his sincerity. Previous presidents have urged reform in the Middle East, only to acquiesce in the status quo when it seemed that US strategic interests might be threatened.

But Mr Bush - a conviction politician more concerned with big ideas than the dispiriting complexities of politically fragmented countries such as Lebanon - says that he will be different. A more democratic Middle East, he said again, offered the best hope of removing the frustrations on which militant Islamism thrived.

Mr Bush threw his weight behind the EU initiative to reach a deal with Iran to end the nuclear ambitions of the Tehran regime. He urged Iran to treat elections in Iraq as an example of what could be in Tehran.

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