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Middle East: U.S. Faces Uphill Battle To Win Support For Regional Democracy Plan

With Muslim resentment of the United States growing, Washington is hoping to enlist European help in jumpstarting an ambitious U.S. plan to promote economic reform and democracy in the Arab world. But Europe has deep misgivings about the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative, and appears unlikely to fully back the plan at summit meetings this June.

Prague, 22 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Just a year ago, the U.S. administration was heralding the dawn of a new era for the Middle East, saying democracy, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and economic reform would follow in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Such optimism hit a high late last year when U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled a major proposal -- the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative -- to promote democracy and economic reform across in the Arab world.

Speaking yesterday in Washington, Bush reiterated his belief that Washington must play a central role in bringing positive change to the Middle East -- and that a free Iraq will be the chief catalyst of that change.

"I believe the people of Iraq will self-govern. And I believe that the world will be better off for it. I believe freedom in the heart of the Middle East is an historic opportunity to change the world. And it's essential that America show resolve and strength and not have our will shaken by those who are willing to murder the innocent," Bush said.

But Bush's plans appear increasingly in question in recent weeks, as violence has gripped Iraq and Washington shifted its stance in favor of Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. A backlash that was already building in European and Arab capitals is now threatening to deal a blow to the U.S. Middle East initiative.

For America, the timing could not be worse. The United States is desperate for international support for its plans to restore Iraqi sovereignty on 30 June. And in the face of growing Muslim skepticism, Washington is eager to win Europe's funding and assistance for Bush's Middle East initiative when it unveils the details of the plan at a June summit of the Group of Eight group of industrial nations. The United States also wants help from Europe in persuading the Arab League to endorse its plans.

Yet the mood in Europe and the Arab world is hardly conciliatory.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), meeting in Kuala Lumpur this week, is expected to denounce U.S. support announced by President Bush last week of a unilateral plan by Israel to permanently annex some West Bank settlements in exchange for a retreat from Gaza.

Muslim anger at the United States has been compounded by Washington's failure to condemn Israel's policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders, including last week's killing of Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi.

Speaking today at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had strong criticism for the Israeli action.

"Of course, the state terrorism conducted by Israel, with even more severe consequences on Palestinian lives, must be unreservedly condemned. Indeed, the terror inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel is beginning to assume the characteristics of atrocities once encountered by the Jews themselves," Badawi said.

The European Union, meanwhile, also appears far from being won over by Washington's overtures for support.

Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten was darkly ironic about Bush's bold prediction that reform and democracy would sweep across the Middle East after the liberation of Iraq.

"It's not hyperbolic to say the outlook today in the region is more worrying than it has been for some time. It certainly seems to be a good deal more disturbing than it looked, for example, at the beginning of last year, when we were being told that the road to peace in the Middle East lay through the military liberation of Baghdad and the installation of democracy in Iraq," Patten said.

Earlier this year, Washington reportedly scrapped far bolder plans for its Middle East initiative following Arab objections that the proposal appeared to dictate change from outside the region. Subsequent media reports say the United States will present a similar but diluted plan at the G-8 meeting, as well as at NATO and U.S.-EU summits in June.

The revised plan reportedly calls for promoting democracy, good governance, widening access to education, and economic reform in the greater Middle East, which encompasses North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

In particular, reports say the plan will urge the G-8 to assist in setting up or strengthening independent election monitoring bodies in Muslim countries; sponsor training for legal reforms and women interested in serving in public office; and increase funding to democracy and human rights groups.

Summaries of the plan have already been fiercely criticized by some of the same countries Washington hoped to involve in it, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. They all termed the plan a unilateral effort to impose change from outside.

Patten, for his part, appeared to agree with that assessment when he addressed the issue of achieving democratic progress in the Middle East in his speech on 20 April.

"If we are to have any chance of accomplishing that outcome, and of encouraging modernization and democracy in the whole region, then we have to avoid words and policies which alienate large parts of the Islamic world and threaten the very clash of civilizations which all sane men and women should want to avoid at all costs," Patten said.

But Washington, too, appears to be growing impatient with Europe's attitude toward its Middle East efforts. In an interview with RFE/RL, Simon Serfaty, director of European studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, fired back at Patten's comments.

"It is just not enough for Mr. Patten, whom I respect enormously, and for all the European heads of state, government and pundits and the like, to simply point to the insufficiencies of a U.S. proposal after it's been placed on the table. It would also be quite useful, frankly, to have some positive, constructive criticism that lead us in the directions that, seemingly, we as Americans are incapable to develop on our own," Serfaty said.

Serfaty, a French-born U.S. citizen, added that he believes Europe and the United States at the G-8 summit will at least agree on ways to begin cooperating on a reform plan for the Middle East, which lags behind most of the world in terms of democracy and freedom, according to a major United Nations study completed last year by Arab scholars.

Serfaty concludes that rather than bickering, America and Europe should use their "complimentary capabilities" to achieve common goals.

"This initiative is quite frankly long overdue. The transformation of the Middle East is likely to be the major geopolitical challenge of the first half of the 21st century, just as the transformation of Europe was the major geopolitical challenge of the second half of the 20th century," Serfaty said.