Failure to take sides with democratic forces in Russia will cast doubt on Bush's commitment to worldwide democracy. A White House official commented to the New York Times that Putin's actions are "a domestic matter for the Russian people." Really? If so, then the same holds for all other peoples whose rights are taken away by tyrants. If the Bush administration holds to that line, then those hostile to democracy in the Middle East will point to the glaring U.S. double standard; those who favor democracy in the Middle East will be discredited. That will be a severe blow to what Bush regards as a central element of his war on terrorism.
Why, if we can intervene militarily to build a democracy in an at most mildly (if at all) dangerous Iraq, can we not at least protest loudly about a huge turn away from democracy in a potentially very dangerous Russia? I think it's likely that Bush feels like he is stuck between Scylla and Charybdis on this one. On the one hand, he has a looming nuclear threat in Russia, while on the other, he has Russia's necessary support in the "war on terrorism." Protesting against Putin's power grab will likely anger Putin, and make him less supportive of future U.S. actions against terrorism. He will have leverage, too, arguing that the U.S. criticized him for doing what he saw as necessary to stem the tide of terrorism in his own country, so why should he support the U.S.'s actions against terrorism in the middle east (or elsewhere)? So Bush and his advisors have a difficult decision to make. Do we take seriously the view that the worldwide promotion of democracy is the best way to combat terrorism, or do we take the position that I think many in the administration already feel is the correct one, namely that fighting terrorism sometimes requires drastic, anti-democratic steps (e.g., the Patriot Act, "enemy combatants," etc.)?
If the Bush administration's policies toward other dictatorships, like those in the former Soviet states in Central Asia, is any indication, they have already chosen the latter. Sadly, this is the same sort of "ends justify the means" mentality that helped to create the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention the rest of the Middle East) in the first place, under Reagan. It's not clear to me that conservatives have ever learned that getting into bed with anti-democratic leaders because it is temporarily expedient to do so can create long term problems. I'm not even sure that they care. It may be up to the Russian people to stem the tide of dangerous anti-democratic moves by Putin's government, and given the unprecedented assaults on civil rights and democracy that the American people have allowed the Bush administration to commit, there's little reason to hope that the Russian people, hurt and angered by several terrorist attacks and an even greater threat of continued terrorism, will do any better.
UPDATE: More and better comments on this here.