The plan, the "Greater Middle East initiative," was made public yesterday in a report in "The Washington Post." It will be unveiled officially at an international economic summit in the United States in June.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the plan is loosely based on the "Helsinki pact" signed in 1975 by 35 nations. The signatories included the United States, the Soviet Union, and most European nations. Human rights became a key part of the Helsinki accords, which gave Washington leverage to speak up for dissident groups in communist Europe and lobby for greater freedoms.
U.S. officials say they have begun talks with European allies to get their support for the plan, to be announced this June at summits of the Group of Eight nations, NATO, and the European Union.
Officials suggest that incentives could include free-trade deals, such as the ones already enjoyed by Jordan and Bahrain. They also say security cooperation, along the lines of NATO's Partnership for Peace, could be extended to Arab nations.
But critics are quick to take issue with key parts of the plan. Steven A. Cook is an expert in Arab political reform with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Cook told RFE/RL that he disagrees with Boucher's assessment that the Middle East is better prepared for reform than was communist Eastern Europe.
"I would be very suspicious of reforms coming at the behest [of] Arab authoritarians. I don't see that they have any incentive to go about doing this. And what incentive they do have is to please the United States, and that's easily done by playing at the game of reform, establishing human rights boards that practically have little or no power," Cook said.
As an example, Cook says U.S. ally Egypt recently announced it is undergoing judicial reforms. And yet, Cook says, at the same time, Egypt has just passed an emergency law that basically puts the country under martial law for the next three years.
Another critic is Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. Carpenter says that in contrast to the Middle East, many parts of communist Europe -- such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- had democratic traditions before being sucked into the Soviet bloc. Therefore, it was reasonable to assume that such traditions could be revived during the Cold War.
"The differences are absolutely profound," he said. "Most of the Central and East European countries had at least some Western democratic traditions. The countries of the Middle East have almost none. And even within the former Soviet empire we have seen highly uneven progress toward democracy."
The Bush administration had predicted that the war in Iraq would spark a wave of democratic reform across the region, and made this a key reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But Cook says that wave has not materialized, nor has the Iraq war given an impetus to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as some war supporters had hoped.
Given the failure to find arms of mass destruction in Iraq -- one of the main reasons for the war -- Cook says the new plan may be tied to the Bush administration's efforts to seek further justification for its engagement in Iraq, especially in this presidential election year. "As the weapons of mass destruction issue has not panned out the way the administration would have liked to pan out, the justification of promoting democracy in the Middle East, and Iraq as a pivot for promoting democracy in the Middle East, has come to the fore as an issue," he said. "And I certainly think this proposal is part of that, without a doubt."
President Bush first hinted at a major plan to bring democracy to the Arab world in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy last November when he announced an initiative to reward reform with trade.
Vice President Dick Cheney picked up on the theme last month at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. "Our forward strategy for freedom commits us to support those who work and sacrifice for reform across the greater Middle East," he said.
Other possible incentives for reform, according to "The Washington Post," include expanded political engagement, increased aid, and helping countries join the World Trade Organization.