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Middle East: Analysts Say U.S., G-8 Face Uphill Battle On Regional Reform Plan

Group of Eight (G-8) leaders meeting in the United States yesterday pledged general support for an initiative to promote democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa. But two analysts say they doubt that the plan, proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush, will go very far, at least for now.

Washington, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A plan to promote democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa began with the Bush administration, but has been embraced -- and modified -- by European members of the Group of Eight (G-8) major industrialized countries. The European leaders say they want to make it less intrusive to the nations of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Indeed, French President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that Middle East and North African countries have no need for what he called "missionaries of democracy." He said they must be free to choose whether to engage with the G-8's plan.

Despite modifications, the initiative will retain the original goals outlined by the United States -- democracy and the rule of law, good governance, respect for minority rights, strengthened education, and women's rights.

But Stefano Sannino, the special adviser to the president of the European Commission on the G-8, told RFE/RL that the European Union has added what it considers to be an important condition to the plan -- a fair resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Leaders of the G-8 yesterday specified that the initiative must go hand-in-hand with support for a "just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement" to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sannino told reporters in Brussels recently that, with the EU's help, the plan will be broached very carefully with each target country. "Essentially, it's based on the idea of partnership and dialogue, on the need for long-term engagement, on the idea that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach," he said. "So it will be a recognition of the unique character of all these countries."

Just how to make these approaches is being discussed at the G-8 summit, which ends today on Sea Island off the southeastern U.S. coast. Besides the United States, participants include the world's six other leading industrial democracies -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan -- plus Russia.

But analysts familiar with the regions involved say they hold out little hope that the plan will go anywhere for the immediate future. One is Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. She told RFE/RL that the effort is hampered by a variety of troubles, including those within the Bush administration itself.

"I doubt that it will bear any fruit,” she said. “I think it's good that the president is pushing for it, but this plan has been denuded of effectiveness and meaning throughout the course of the last six months."

Pletka said the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department all have different views on how foreign policy should be conducted. As a result, she said, the policy that emerges has built-in conflicts that could leave it, at times, incoherent.

Besides the internal conflicts, Pletka said, the Bush administration has allowed its partners to make too many changes -- changes she said appease both the United States' G-8 allies and the leaders of the countries where reform is being promoted. "We're embracing lowest-common-denominator politics," she said. "We need the G-8 to sign on to it; they don't want to sign on to it. We've decided that we don't want to offend the Arab dictators that it will affect. At the end of the day, if you don't want to offend Arab dictators, and you want the French to sign on, you're not going to end up with much of anything."

Pletka said she believes the initiative is a "great change in foreign policy," but feels that compromise has left it weak. Still, she conceded, any start is better than no start at all.

Murhaf Jouejati also expects few, if any, results from the program, but for different reasons. Jouejati is a Syrian-born specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Middle East Institute, another private Washington think tank.

Jouejati fully embraces the idea of reform, and said these countries need an "external partner" to help persuade their leaders to democratize. But he said both these leaders and the people themselves tend to regard any foreign effort to reform their political structures as meddling. According to Jouejati, Arabs are especially skeptical of any initiative promoted by the United States -- particularly by Bush -- because America's Middle East policy is now not viewed as credible.

But Jouejati said any change in the region probably will have to come with at least some prompting from outside, as it often has in the past. He cited the Tanzimat reform movement in Turkey during the latter half of the 19th century, which was heavily influenced by Europe. "It seems to me that whenever there is change in the region, it is as a result of external pressures," he said. "What I am thinking of specifically is the reform movement of the Ottoman Empire. And that only happened as a result of European pressures. It's difficult to imagine that the Arab states would reform by themselves, given the weakness of Arab civil society in general."

Jouejati said the initiative will be further hampered because of a foreign policy that he called "more than harsh" toward Muslim nations. He cited the U.S. war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq, and the Bush administration's close support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The involvement of European countries may make the program more palatable to Muslims, Jouejati said, but probably not palatable enough for it to succeed -- at least for now. "The tone of this administration has been more than harsh. Had it adopted another tone, had there been more of a spirit of cooperation, it probably would have done better for Arab states and society. There is a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of Arab states and Arab society. The fact that this G-8 [Middle East plan], of course, is done with European partners makes it somewhat better. But still, I think it is locally perceived as outside meddling," Jouejati said.

Jouejati said a different president might be more persuasive about democratic reforms in the Muslim world. And yet, he said, there is one problem in U.S. foreign policy that is not peculiar to Bush -- the consistent and nearly unquestioning support of Israel in its ongoing struggle with its Arab neighbors.

Until there is a shift in that policy, Jouejati said, such initiatives will not succeed.