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U.S.: Washington Announces Plan To Promote Democracy In Muslim World

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Stung by terrorists who attacked America in part because of its support for authoritarian Muslim regimes, the United States has unveiled a new plan to vigorously promote democracy in the Islamic world.

Washington, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Acknowledging its past failures to promote self-government in Muslim nations, the United States has announced a new plan aimed at helping the Islamic world become more democratic.

The announcement -- which comes as a new survey shows anti-U.S. sentiment spiking in the Muslim world -- was made on 4 December by Richard Haass, the U.S. State Department's director of policy planning. Citing last year's 11 September attacks, Haass said the U.S. "has learned the hard way" that Muslim countries under authoritarian rule can become breeding grounds for terrorists who then attack America because of U.S. support for those regimes.

In a speech to experts at the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations, Haass said that after decades of neglecting to promote change in the Muslim world, Washington is now changing course. "The United States will work more energetically than ever before to promote democracy in partnership with the people and governments of the Muslim world."

According to a recent United Nations report, the Muslim world suffers a "deficit of democracy." With few exceptions, Muslim countries are ruled by autocrats who stifle free speech, representative government, and economic progress. But Haass said democracy and Islam are not irreconcilable.

He said it took years for democracy to develop in several places -- including Western Europe -- and cited as recent democratic success stories South Korea, Chile, and Eastern Europe. And among Muslim countries with promising democratic trends, he cited Iran, Bahrain, the Palestinians, Oman, Kuwait, Indonesia, and Albania. He said a major new effort to support those trends will be unveiled in the coming months by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. "This new initiative will focus on encouraging development in three areas critical to progress in the Arab world: economic, educational, and political reform. We will provide new resources in this effort, in addition to the $1 billion we already spend annually in economic assistance in the Arab world."

Haass said democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that lasting change must come from within Muslim societies. He said America would work to help nations create their own versions of representative government, but added that every democracy needs a free media, an educated population, and respect for women's rights. He said the process should be gradual and not threatening, but eventually replace the authoritarian rule prevalent in the Muslim world.

For a senior U.S. official, Haass was unusually candid in his criticism of past U.S. efforts to promote Muslim democracy. "Muslims cannot blame the United States for their lack of democracy. Still, the United States does play a large role on the world stage, and our efforts to promote democracy throughout the Muslim world have sometimes been halting and incomplete."

Haass alluded to U.S. policy toward traditional ally Saudi Arabia and new American friends, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. "At times, the United States has avoided scrutinizing the internal workings of countries in the interests of ensuring a steady flow of oil, containing Soviet, Iraqi, and Iranian expansionism, addressing issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, resisting communism in East Asia, or securing basing rights for our military."

Haass said America had missed an opportunity to help make Muslim countries "more stable, more peaceful, more prosperous, and more adaptable to the stresses of a globalizing world." He said the U.S. will no longer make what he called "democratic exceptions" for authoritarian regimes that serve U.S. interests.

However, Haass did not say how or if these changes will immediately affect American relations with key countries such as Saudi Arabia, the main source of oil for Washington.

Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Washington's Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Ajami, who introduced Haass before his speech, said he wonders how America can reconcile promoting Muslim democracy with the new geopolitical realty of the war on terrorism. "We have to do business with Syria. We have to do business with Uzbekistan. We have to do business with Algeria. And indeed, this war on terror forces us into all kinds of relationships with regimes that are not particularly kind and oriented toward democracy."

Haass acknowledged the dilemma. But he said Washington's answer, for now, will be to work with Muslim governments in hopes that they will come to see that it is in their long-term interests to become democratic.

He said he believes that democracy and prosperity are intimately intertwined. And he rejected any speculation that the U.S. is seeking to overthrow regimes through this new focus on democracy. "There is no hidden agenda here. America's rationale in promoting democratization in the Muslim world is both altruistic and self-interested. Greater democracy in Muslim majority countries is good for people who live there. But it is also good for the United States."

In a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, Haass said he had been struck by how many people complained to him that Washington did not speak up loudly enough on behalf of democracy.

Haass said America realizes that by supporting democracy in Muslim countries, it risks helping to bring to power Islamist parties with policies it may not favor. But he said the U.S. is not opposed to Muslim parties, and cited its receptivity to the recent democratic election in Turkey of a party with Islamist roots.

Haass said Washington would take issue with an Islamic party that comes to power democratically only if it turns out to adopt policies the U.S. vehemently opposes, such as supporting terrorism or proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Besides, he said, criticizing policy is what democratic life is all about.

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