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U.S.: Washington's 'Greater Middle East Initiative' Stumbles Amid Charges It Imposes Change

  • Charles Recknagel

A major U.S. proposal to foster democracy in the Mideast, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has run aground amid angry criticism from key Arab rulers and doubts in Europe. Now, Washington is reported to be revising its approach in hopes of still finding a way to unveil some version of its Greater Middle East Initiative at the G-8 summit in June.

Prague, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's plan to encourage democracy in the Greater Middle East has come under such heavy fire that U.S. policymakers are now reported to be scrambling to find a way to still present some form of the initiative at a summit of the G-8 industrial nations this summer.

"The New York Times" reported this month that Washington will "set aside its plan to issue a sweeping call for economic, political and cultural reform in the Middle East" because of "Arab objections that such a call would give the appearance that change was being dictated" from outside the region. The paper reported that the G-8 summit "will instead proclaim its endorsement of reforms under way in the Middle East."

Britain's "Financial Times" daily also reported this month that Washington has "scrapped its draft proposal for a 'Greater Middle East Initiative,' but a revised and probably diluted plan is still expected to be launched in June under a different name."

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt -- three of America's closest regional partners -- termed the plan a unilateral effort to impose change on their region from the outside.
The reports come just four months after U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled his democracy-building initiative in a major policy speech.

Bush said democratic principles such as competitive elections and parliamentary rule are barely known in the region and that widespread public frustration and the growth of extremist groups are the result.

"There is a great challenge today in the Middle East. In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has, and I quote, 'barely reached the Arab states.' They continue, 'This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.' The freedom deficit they described has terrible consequences for the people of the Middle East and for the world."

But while Washington has said it wants to make democracy-building a central part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, the initiative has proven to be highly controversial with many Arab governments since a working paper being prepared for the G-8 summit was leaked to the Arabic press in February.

The draft detailed proposals that Washington planned to make as it sought funding and other assistance for its initiative at the G-8, NATO, and U.S.-European Union summits this summer. It listed the initiative's priorities as promoting democracy and good governance, widening regional access to education and information, and expanding economic opportunities.

The working paper suggested the G-8 provide countries in the Greater Middle East -- an area encompassing North Africa, the Mideast, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- with assistance in establishing or strengthening independent election commissions that could monitor presidential, parliamentary, and other polls. It proposed the G-8 sponsor exchanges of parliamentarians to discuss legal reforms and sponsor training for women interested in running for elected office. And it suggested that the G-8 should increase direct funding to democracy, human rights, and other NGOs in the region and establish community-level centers where people could obtain legal advice.

The sneak preview of the plan brought a firestorm of criticism from many of the same Arab leaders Washington had most hoped to involve in it.

The governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt -- three of America's closest regional partners -- termed the plan a unilateral effort to impose change on their region from the outside.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said this month that the U.S. proposals "include clear accusations against the Arab people and their governments that they are ignorant of their own affairs." He said "those behind these plans ignore the fact that our Arab people have cultures rooted deep in history and that we are able to handle our own affairs."

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said any reforms must be a "home-grown process" and that "we hope the G-8 summit will respond to a call from the region rather than initiate [changes from the outside]."

Charles Snow, a regional expert with the Cyprus-based Middle East Economic Survey, says one reason Arab regimes reacted so negatively is that the draft made no mention of the role the governments themselves would play in changing their societies.

Snow says some autocratic rulers may fear that democratic change could bring down their governments. And even those rulers who might be willing to experiment with change hardly want to be seen as doing so as a result of foreign pressure.

"They are extremely wary of the whole thing because it could be a threat to their own regimes. They are saying change must come from within because they can stifle dissent internally. But even if their intentions are good (even if they did want change and believed it must come from within), they can't be seen to be accepting a diktat from outside."

Another criticism by Arab leaders of the leaked plan is that it contained no proposals for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Arabs say the conflict has helped spark militancy in the region.

Several European governments also criticized the draft as overlooking regional realities.

French President Jacques Chirac said this month that "we support modernization which comes as a result of consultations, cooperation between states.... We think that nothing can be imposed. In other words, modernization yes, interference no."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that without solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is little chance of resolving the Middle East's other problems.

Straw said that "we have to recognize that the continuing conflict...makes change only more difficult than it is, and already clouds the whole relationship between the Islamic world and the West." He added: "As long as the current stalemate continues, the situation in Palestine will be cited by many to argue that a region still in conflict needs stability, not reform."

The European Union launched its own EU-Mediterranean initiative in Barcelona in 1995 to promote economic reforms and create a free trade area by 2010. Many European leaders are reported to want to ensure that any new U.S.-sponsored plan enhances rather than undermines that effort. Washington has called on the Europeans to join with it in what it calls its "forward strategy for freedom."

Responding to the criticisms, Washington first sought to ease tensions by saying it had intended to consult with Arab leaders about the proposals but was pre-empted from doing so by the leaked draft. But now U.S. officials are signaling they may substantially change their approach.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a visit to the Gulf region this month that the "initiative is not something for the U.S. to impose on anyone.... It is something for the U.S. to help others to achieve reform."

He also said that democratic change "must come from each country examining its own history, its own culture, its own state, social and political development and making a judgment as to how it is going to go forward into that future."

"The New York Times" quotes U.S. administration officials as saying privately that they will work with European leaders to encourage Arab nations to proclaim their own reform measures before the G-8 summit. That would allow the summit to announce its endorsement of reforms rather than appear to be dictating them.

A senior U.S. State Department official told the newspaper that Powell understands that "nothing is going to work if it looks like it is being imposed" and that aid, investment and trade preferences should be used to "enhance" the reforms under way.

Washington has previously endorsed tentative moves by several Arab governments to loosen political restrictions or encourage greater women's rights. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney described those efforts this way in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

"As some at this conference can attest, we've seen movement toward reform in the Greater Middle East," he said. "In Morocco, King Muhammad recently called for greater protection of women's rights. In Jordan, elections have been held and the government is taking steps to reduce state control of the press. In Bahrain, elections were held last year and women were allowed to run for office for the first time. In Egypt, the ruling national democratic parties called for increased economic reform and expanded political participation. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah has issued an Arab charter for reform and called for the holding of municipal elections."

But the depth of commitment of some of these governments to change has yet to be tested. Riyadh this month arrested a dozen reformists after warning them to reduce their demands and present a unified front with the government at a time when the country is wrestling with terrorism. Five have been released after signing a statement promising not to talk to the media or sign petitions calling for reforms.
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