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U.S.: Study Urges New Tack In Relations With Arab World

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush is touting recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as the push for democracy in Lebanon. A new report sponsored by an independent Washington policy-research center says Bush can take some credit for these developments, but it also suggests U.S.-Arab relations are at their lowest point in decades. The study, issued on 7 March, suggests changes in U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East as a way not only to improve relations but also to help promote democracy in the region.

Washington, 8 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The report offers a wide range of suggestions for the U.S. government, from helping the economies of the Middle East to setting up bilateral task forces to examine the differences and values the region shares with the United States.

But the most important point, according to those involved in the study, is for the United States to listen -- not only to the national leaders, but also the people.

So the think tank that sponsored the report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, commissioned a poll of more than 3,000 Arabs in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
"We asked them, 'What are the important issues for you? What issues require change in your country?' They're largely quality-of-life issues. They want their educational system improved, they want expanded employment, they want health care, they want better quality of life even in the environment. And then, and only then, come issues that deal with democracy, reform, political debate, women's rights, etc."


According to James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute, the poll shows that the leading issue among Arabs is neither Iraq nor local reform, despite recent developments. "From our discussions, it became clear that nothing dominates the Arab view more toward the United States than the Arab-Israeli conflict," Zogby said. "Indeed, we are predicting that the recommendations that follow in this report will not succeed unless the U.S. shows active leadership in forging a comprehensive solution that creates a democratic, secure Palestine alongside a democratic, secure, Jewish Israel."

Zogby said Arabs surveyed say they don't reasonably expect that the United States will ever end its strong support for Israel. And they see Washington as the most important element in the peace process. But they say they don't believe the American government has recently been an honest broker.

While the Israel-Palestinian issue is at the top of their priorities, Zogby said, Arabs also want change in their countries. But for them, he said, their first priority is not democracy. "We asked them, 'What are the important issues for you? What issues require change in your country?' They're largely quality-of-life issues," Zogby said. "They want their educational system improved, they want expanded employment, they want health care, they want better quality of life even in the environment. And then, and only then, come issues that deal with democracy, reform, political debate, women's rights, etc."

Zogby stressed that a majority of the respondents said they do n-o-t want the United States involved in any reform that involves their countries' internal political systems.

The report says the Bush administration's foreign policy should focus not only on the leaders of Middle Eastern states, but on the broader Arab public. Edward Gabriel, a former ambassador to Morocco who was an organizer of the report, said the poll was valuable in this regard.

According to Gabriel, a more expansive U.S. foreign policy could help the United States reap what he called "new partners" and more meaningful relationships in the Middle East. "I think that one of the things that comes across very clearly in this report," Gabriel said, "is that we have to build deeper and broader partnerships, not just partnerships with people who already agree with us."

The chairman of the committee responsible for the report is William Cohen, a former U.S. senator (Republican-Maine) who later served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor.

According to Cohen, the spread of democracy in the Middle East is not as outlandish an idea as it might have seemed only a few years ago. But he cautioned that democracy probably will not come quickly in the region. He urged the United States not to expect quick adoption of democracy, but to show patience.

"We need to take into account -- listen to -- what the Arab leaders and what the Arab people are saying," Cohen said. "Let's look at their culture, let's look at their religions. Let's try to find some basis of comprehension of what lives they live, what aspirations they have, and how they get there at what pace. I don't think that we can just dictate democracy. I don't think we can demand it. We have to nurture it and to take measures that will allow it to flourish," Cohen said.

Cohen said listening carefully to the people of the Arab world is more than simply an effective way to reduce hostility toward the United States. It is also the best way to find allies in the region.
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