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Middle East: The U.S. Proposes A Vision To Democratize Region (Part 1)

U.S. President George W. Bush now routinely speaks about Washington's intervention in Iraq as part of a new American policy to build democracy in the Middle East. The centerpiece of that initiative is to transform Iraq into a functioning democratic state that will inspire change in neighboring societies and help quell the growth of terrorism. The first part of a two-part series looks at how the new policy originated in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America.

Prague, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For most Americans, the first notice of Washington's ambitious plan to democratize the Middle East came one and a half months before the Iraq war.

At that time, in a widely reported speech in Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush dramatically broadened his argument for intervening in Iraq.

For months prior, the administration had argued that removing what it called the urgent threat posed by Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction was reason enough for military action. But now, Bush also cited as a greater goal the liberation of the Iraqi people from deposed President Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and the hope that a new Iraq would serve as a beacon of democracy for the rest of the region.

Since the war, Washington has moved increasingly toward making that vision of a more democratic Middle East its principle justification for remaining in Iraq now that Hussein has been removed from power.

Just how much importance the administration gives to its democracy initiative was clearly underlined in the major speech on Iraq the U.S. president made earlier this month.

Bush never mentioned weapons of mass destruction, which U.S. investigators continue to search for with little public success. But he described in detail how little democracy exists in the Middle East and how more could benefit the region and the world.

"There is a great challenge today in the Middle East. In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has, and I quote, 'barely reached the Arab states.' They continue, 'This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.' The freedom deficit they described has terrible consequences for the people of the Middle East and for the world," Bush said.

He also said Washington could not afford to fail in what he termed his new "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

"The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, it would increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will set forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation."

Analysts say many aspects of the new policy -- beyond efforts to create a model democratic system in Iraq -- remain to be detailed. But the policy itself has become one of the principle lenses through which the administration views the Mideast and the challenges it poses.

David Ignatius, a columnist for "The Washington Post," says the policy gained ground in Washington shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. He says the attacks convinced the administration that the U.S. could no longer afford to continue what he calls America's previous strategy of maintaining the "status quo" in the Middle East.

"One of the interesting consequences of '9/11' [11 September 2001] is that the United States in the months afterwards decided -- for reasons that still have not been clearly explained to the country -- to stop being a status quo power in the Middle East and to become a transforming power in the Middle East. That was really the central reason why people like Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, began arguing after 9/11 that it was time to go to war in Iraq," Ignatius said.

He says previous U.S. administrations mostly pursued a policy of ignoring the domestic situation in Middle Eastern countries in order to maintain good relations and to meet specific U.S. objectives of the moment. Thus, Washington made any concerns over a lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia secondary to maintaining access to Saudi oil supplies. And it made any human rights concerns over the Hussein regime in the 1980s secondary to helping Iraq in its war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, at that time considered a more serious threat to American interests.

But Ignatius says the rise of international terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda, led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, convinced the Bush administration that the status quo in the Middle East was no longer tolerable.

"The status quo was knocking down American skyscrapers," Ignatius says. "The status quo had moved from being tolerable to being intolerable. So, again without a lot of clarity, the United States moved toward this transforming vision of what it might accomplish in the Middle East, and plans for an invasion of Iraq moved forward."

The journalist says the initiative to transform the Middle East has drawn strength from a widespread perception in Washington that people across the region are fed up with corrupt and anti-democratic regimes and hungry for something different. He says top U.S. officials also believe that many of the governments are too weak too resist pressure to change and will do so if prompted.

Many proponents of the new U.S. strategy hope America will play the same role in transforming the Middle East that Washington played in hastening the collapse of communism in the 1980s. In speaking this month, Bush evoked just that imagery when he equated his initiative to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan declaring in 1982 that Soviet communism had failed.

But a new U.S. policy aimed at encouraging fundamental changes in the Middle East faces daunting challenges. Many observers in the region note that democracy means different things to different elements of Arab society. They also predict that changes which are welcome to some will be strongly resisted by others, making the success any new policy highly uncertain.

(The second of this two-part series looks at how the new U.S. policy is being received in the Middle East.)