U.S. Promises Democracy in Middle East
Rice Calls for 'Generational Commitment'
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2003; Page A01
The Bush administration made a broad pledge yesterday to spread democracy and free markets to the Middle East, promising to move beyond the recent focus on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an ambitious but vaguely defined project to transform a troubled region.
Calling the development of freedom in the Middle East the "security challenge and the moral mission of our time," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the United States and its allies must make a "generational commitment" to Middle Easterners who live under oppressive and often corrupt governments.
In a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists in Dallas, Rice disputed "condescending voices" who say Arab cultures are not ready for freedom. Invoking her girlhood in racially segregated Birmingham, she said: "We've heard that argument before. And we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it.
"The view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham," Rice said, "and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East."
She offered few details of a project whose prospects have been greeted with widespread skepticism, particularly in the Middle East itself, where the depth of the administration's spoken commitment to Arab democracy remains unproved. Historically, U.S. presidents have accepted the stability of autocratic rule.
The White House says that pattern must be broken. Beyond Baghdad, where the administration is spending $4 billion a month to establish security and a new government, officials are designing a mixture of approaches that range from grants and private arm-twisting to public criticism in troublesome cases, such as Syria and Iran.
The goal years from now is a region of increasingly open societies, economic prosperity and representative government. But undemocratic rule remains the norm in a tense area where the United States has extensive oil interests and political relationships that it considers critical to the anti-terror war and Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
"It is a region," Rice said, "where hopelessness provides a fertile ground for ideologies that convince promising youths to aspire not to a university education, a career or family, but to blowing themselves up, taking as many innocent lives with them as possible. We need to address the source of the problem."
A central difficulty will be spurring change among allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have long been criticized for their human rights records. To make significant progress, the United States must also establish credibility from a low starting point, said independent analysts who predict Arabs will watch carefully to see how much money and political capital the administration invests in such ambitions.
"How much are we going to lean on Egypt to introduce democratic reforms?" said David R. Smock, a U.S. Institute for Peace director. "So much of the Arab world is looking to see whether we really believe in democracy, or whether we're making strategic partnerships."
Unlike its dealings with the Palestinian Authority -- in which the White House is intervening deeply in management issues -- and other nations from Burma to Venezuela, the administration has not yet called for elections or set specific democracy-minded targets in much of the Middle East. Nor has it often established terms for improved relations.
"The difficulty they face is, since their strategy is incremental change, the initial changes are not going to be very impressive," said Patrick L. Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They're going to have to find ways of convincing Middle Eastern governments that they're serious about this."
Rice, in her Dallas remarks and an op-ed article in yesterday's Washington Post, said the administration intends to work intently with Middle Eastern figures who "seek progress" on tolerance and prosperity. She said "patience and perseverance" will be required, and the long-range U.S. commitment would not be primarily military, but diplomatic, economic and cultural.
In Iraq, the Bush administration used force to overthrow Saddam Hussein's Baath Party government and is undertaking the United States' most ambitious nation-building exercise since the 1940s. To entice and cajole others, Bush in May proposed creating a Middle East free-trade area in the coming decade. The State Department is reviewing $1 billion in annual aid to Egypt, and U.S. officials are telling their Arab counterparts that change will weaken radical Islamic movements.
The administration secured $145 million this year for democracy, education and economic initiatives in the Middle East. Many of the proposed projects are small. Plans include campaign seminars in Qatar and Jordan for women throughout the region. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and a group of U.S. judges plan to attend a workshop in Bahrain next month.
Officials have begun briefing Congress on a proposal to spend $20 million this year and $30 million next year on a Middle East financial corporation. The State Department is supporting a proposal by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to spend $15 million on a foundation to support civil society initiatives, such as strengthening an independent press.
A separate micro-enterprise project for women is on the drawing board and publishers are being sought to produce children's books in Arabic. The administration is talking quietly with allies in Europe and elsewhere, hoping for significant support.
"We will work with our partners to ensure that small and mid-sized businesses have access to capital and support efforts in the region to develop essential laws on property rights and good business practices," Bush said May 9. "By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom."
Winning support in the Arab world poses a significant challenge, particularly given growing levels of anger toward a Bush administration widely seen in the region as arrogant and culturally tone-deaf. U.S. forces mounted invasions to overthrow Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Arabs are closing watching assertive new American efforts and questioning whether Bush will exert sufficient pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Smock described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "the touchstone" for Arabs and Muslims who will "look to see if we really are on the same side or not, and whether we stand for justice and liberation or not."
A U.S. official who supports the president's emerging policy singled out the stakes in Iraq. "If you don't get Iraq right," the official said, "nothing else matters much."