An American plan for the West to promote greater democracy and economic and cultural reform in the Middle East has created new strains between Washington and traditional allies in Europe and the Arab world.
A US working paper for June's G8 summit of the leading industrial powers in Georgia sets out President Bush's "Greater Middle East (GME) Initiative", which sees the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a springboard for launching change throughout the region. It is being seen in some European and Arab capitals, however, as another attempt by the US to impose its will on the Middle East.
The document, published by an Arabic-language paper in London, calls on the G8 countries - the US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, the UK and Russia - to "forge a long-term partnership with reform leaders in the GME . . . to promote political, economic and social reform in the region".
The scheme has, however, been floated without consultation with Arab leaders. It provides no extra financial help beyond the meager $120m (£64m) already provided in the existing Middle East Partnership Initiative.
Above all, it threatens to reopen old wounds over Iraq between the US and its allies that both sides have been trying to heal, as exemplified by yesterday's White House meeting between Mr Bush and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor and a unrelenting opponent of the Iraq war.
"This has to be handled extremely carefully," one G8 diplomat said. "The US mustn't upset the Europeans, and the plan can't be seen as something imposed by the US, or as a case of the West patronizing the Arab world."
But, judging by the reaction in the Middle East, that is exactly the view being taken. The Bush administration was behaving "as if the region and its states do not exist, as if they had no sovereignty over their land", President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, one of Washington's Arab allies, said this week.
The US blueprint aims to address the three "deficits" identified in the now celebrated 2002 and 2003 Arab Human Development reports issued by the United Nations: of freedom, knowledge, and economic development. If these are not tackled "we will witness an increase in extremism, terrorism and international crime", the US paper says.
It proposes stronger backing for non-government groups working for freer elections, and for education initiatives targeted at women. It also urges freedom of the press and an end to restrictions and harassment of those working to promote human rights and civil society.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd