BEIRUT Western backing for the legally disputed emergency government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demolished any lingering Arab belief that U.S. President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" is going anywhere.
Both critics and advocates of the sweeping goals he laid out for his second term in 2005 agree that power politics and the "war on terrorism" have trumped democratic principles.
They say this was clear from the moment the United States and the European Union boycotted the government set up by Hamas in March 2006 after the Islamists trounced Abbas's Fatah faction in free elections that Washington had insisted go ahead.
"That was the hair in the soup in terms of the democracy agenda," said Lebanese commentator Michael Young, who had supported Bush's thesis that invading Iraq in 2003 would undermine undemocratic Arab regimes elsewhere.
"The U.S. response (to Hamas's election win) was: 'we'll accept democracy but not if it means the other side can win'."
Now, Washington has embraced as "legitimate" the cabinet Abbas named after Hamas routed his Fatah forces in Gaza on June 14. The EU also endorsed Abbas's actions as constitutional.
Yet the main authors of the Palestinian constitution, or Basic Law, say Abbas has exceeded his powers and needs the approval of parliament to keep the government in place.
Many Palestinians feel the West had already trampled on their democracy in its rush to isolate Hamas for its refusal to recognize Israel, abandon violence or accept past peace accords.
"The Palestinians were immediately rewarded by the 'democracies' of the world with an unprecedented crippling siege as a punishment for the exercise of their democratic right," Anis al-Qasem, who led the framing of Basic Law, said this week.
Across the Middle East, foes of the West accuse it of double standards. Arab reformers say U.S. actions undercut their cause.
"Issues of legality and legitimacy are completely irrelevant in U.S. eyes," said Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based commentator.
These values had been sidelined in a U.S.-led struggle with two distinct groups -- "al Qaeda terrorist types" and mainstream Islamists engaged at least partly in electoral politics, such as Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, he added.
Bush still cites his democracy agenda as a basis for policy.
"I firmly believe that you'll see the democracy movement continue to advance throughout the Middle East if the United States doesn't become isolationist," he said on Thursday.
Despite the chaos in Iraq, he said his country must keep fighting there to win a wider battle against "radicals and extremists who want to impose their dark vision" on the world.
While penalizing the elected Hamas government, Bush lauds Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for defending a "young democracy" against Hezbollah and its patrons, Syria and Iran.
But Hezbollah, while fielding an anti-Israel guerrilla force, also belongs to a strong parliamentary opposition of Christian and Shi'ite factions that challenges the legitimacy of the cabinet backed by Siniora's Sunni, Christian and Druze bloc.
In practice, analysts say, Washington has eased whatever post-9/11 pressure for reform it had exerted on countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan because it wants their help in confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions and stabilizing Iraq.
REALITY MUGS RHETORIC
"The Bush administration's policy toward democracy in the Muslim countries is essentially bankrupt," former State Department official David Mack, who is now Vice President of the Middle East Institute in Washington, told Reuters.
Bush's pledge in his 2005 inaugural speech to promote reform by making U.S. relations with other countries hinge on "the decent treatment of their own people" had proved untenable.
"It never could have happened," Mack said. "All we did, from the point of view of democracy advocates, was raise unachievable expectations and behave in a hypocritical manner."
Bush said the United States would keep reminding its Middle East allies that "we want them to work toward freer societies".
But such ideals had never been the sole driver of U.S. policy, Young argued. "Even in 2003 when they went into Iraq, there was always a large element of power politics.
"If the Americans had succeeded, the democracy agenda would have been a powerful instrument...but they proved incompetent."
Far more Arabs would argue that invading and occupying Iraq, with its echoes of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, fatally compromised any prospects of igniting liberty elsewhere.
Arab mistrust of U.S. policy is now so deep that dissidents in countries like Syria have to expend much energy dissociating themselves from it to retain any credibility at home.
With the EU largely following Washington's lead, notably towards Hamas, Arab reformers feel their struggle may be forlorn if the West is willing to tolerate corrupt, authoritarian rulers as long as they are U.S.-friendly and cooperative on terrorism.
"The international community has to decide: are we going to barter reforms and democracy for pro-Western (governments)?" asked Khalil Gebara, of the Lebanese Transparency Association.