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Middle East/U.S.: Washington Turns On Diplomatic 'Charm Offensive,' But Will The Region Listen?

Faced with Arab wrath over the prison torture scandal in Iraq and Washington's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the United States is engaged in a major diplomatic push in the Middle East. The offensive has included rare criticism of Israel and high-level talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. But do the new U.S. efforts constitute a real policy shift -- or are they just damage control?

Prague, 17 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- America's image has suffered "a black eye around the world."

That's how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 16 May described the fallout for the United States from the scandal over the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The torture scandal, which has inflamed Arab public opinion, is one of several blows to U.S. Middle East policy that have forced Washington on to the diplomatic defensive in the increasingly volatile region.

The other blows include a deteriorating security situation in Iraq, skyrocketing oil prices, severe criticism by Arab countries of a U.S. plan to spread democracy in the Middle East, and rejection of a controversial plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by his own Likud Party -- rejection that flew in the face of unprecedented support for the plan by U.S. President George W. Bush.

In response to one setback after another, Yossi Mekelberg of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs said the Bush administration has scaled back many of its original Middle East policies in an attempt to keep them viable and maintain overall support for U.S. goals in the region.
"We know that Israel has a right for self-defense. But the kind of actions they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose." -- Colin Powell

"It's a combination of many things, the torture story in Iraq as well as the referendum in the Likud Party," Mekelberg said. "It's just that the Middle Eastern policy of the United States achieves basically nothing. And in any aspect of it, the United States faces a very difficult situation and, as a result, difficult choices: What to do?"

The answer, at least in the last couple of weeks, has been a U.S. charm offensive that has included rare criticism of Israel and high-level U.S. meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Speaking yesterday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Powell said the United States opposes a move by Israel to destroy hundreds of Palestinian homes in Gaza in what Israel calls a move against militants.

"We oppose the destruction of homes," Powell said. "We don't think that is productive. We know that Israel has a right for self-defense. But the kind of actions they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose."

In Jordan, Powell also met with Qurei for the first time since he took over as Palestinian prime minister from Abu Mazen last year.

That meeting was followed up today in Berlin, where Qurei held talks with White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The meetings with Qurei, coupled with the criticism of Israel, contrast with the image conveyed in Washington just one month ago. Then, Bush effectively shifted 50 years of U.S. policy in supporting Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan for Gaza and stating that Israel had the right to retain certain West Bank settlements and to reject the return of Palestinian refugees.

Bush's words were greeted with a wave of criticism in Europe and the Middle East -- but nothing compared to what followed the first reports three weeks ago that U.S. soldiers in Iraq had tortured Iraqi prisoners.

Following those reports, Bush offered a rare apology in a televised appearance alongside Jordanian King Abdullah.

Meanwhile, a major U.S. plan to spread democracy in the Middle East appears to be faltering. Both European allies and Arab governments have balked at the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative, saying the impetus for reform must come from within Arab states and not be imposed from outside.

Again in response to widespread criticism, the Bush administration has significantly narrowed the scope of its original plan. Powell yesterday even echoed Arab concerns about the initiative.

"We spent a good bit of time talking about reform -- reform that ultimately has to come from within, reform that is coming from within," Powell said. "I sense that all of the Arab nations understand the need for reform and understand that the United States and the industrialized world -- especially the G-8, NATO and other international organizations -- want to assist the Arab world in the process of reform."

The administration, which had argued the Iraq war would spark democratic reform across the Middle East, got some good news today when Kuwait's parliament passed a draft law that would give women the right to vote and run for parliament.

Analyst Mekelberg said it's a positive development, but noted that Kuwait's women have fought for 40 years for their right to vote. He said the United States would be better off adopting a more realistic attitude toward its Mideast democracy plans.

"And we see some interesting signs, like in Kuwait that women will be able to vote for the first time. And in Qatar, there are some developments there. There are some developments," Mekelberg said. "But you know, to raise expectations that something like democratization of the Middle East will happen overnight, or over the course a year, would be to set standards very high."

Arab public opinion and government support are becoming critical for Washington as violence in Iraq threatens to complicate U.S. plans to hand political authority back to Iraqis by 30 June.

But Mekelberg said he believes Washington's latest diplomatic push is probably more "charm offensive" than it is a genuine shift in policy toward the Middle East.

And policy, perhaps, is what most matters in terms of winning Arab hearts and minds, according to Rashid Khalidi, head of Middle East studies at New York's Columbia University.

Speaking recently on CSPAN, Khalidi rejected the idea that Arabs do not approve of U.S. democracy or values. On the contrary, he said that Americans are widely admired, as are some aspects of U.S. popular culture, such as music and movies.

"What they don't like are [U.S.] policies, rather than [Americans] as a people or [their] values," Khalidi said.