Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community
We Can't Do It Without You!  
     
Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives | Search
   
 
   Headlines  
 

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article
 
 
Arab Summit Blow-Up Appears Bad for Bush; U.S. Plan for Reform Resented as Meddling
Published on Tuesday, March 30, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Arab Summit Blow-Up Appears Bad for Bush
U.S. Plan for Reform Resented as Meddling
by Robert Collier
 

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's attempts to promote democracy in the Arab world appear to have suffered a major setback with the acrimonious collapse of an Arab summit in Tunisia that Washington hoped would boost the initiative.

After Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali tempestuously called off the Arab League summit Saturday night, before its scheduled opening Monday, analysts and government officials from Washington to Riyadh debated whether the administration's plan for reform, dubbed the Greater Middle East Initiative, might suffer the same fate as the almost comical diplomatic catfight in Tunisia.


Although administration officials have predicted that the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the implantation of democracy in that country will cause a flowering of freedom throughout the region, for many Arabs it appears that "the opposite has happened," said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "In the region, Iraq looks more like chaos, not a good model that people want to follow."

U.S. officials hoped that the summit would set the region on a path toward Western-style free elections and free markets. But commentators in the United States and the Middle East say the administration has instead made matters worse by appearing to shove democracy down the throats of reluctant Arab leaders.

"The Greater Middle East Initiative is going nowhere fast," said Andrew Apostolou, a Mideast analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. "The problem is that Arab states are in no mood to agree to any form of externally generated freedoms, and I see no way out of this. I don't think the Bush administration has handled this well."

Despite the heavy publicity surrounding the initiative, few details have been released, and it is unclear whether the plan will include the carrot of significant new U.S. foreign aid. Published accounts indicate that it includes only modest spending, mainly on training programs for journalists, women and election monitors.

Apostolou and other observers say the administration's attempts to promote the initiative have been plagued by missteps from the very beginning.

Instead of being communicated privately to Arab governments, it was leaked to the Washington Post in early February -- a snub Arab rulers found humiliating.

"The Bush administration says that reform has to come from within, but ... when it was leaked, ... it took on a life of its own," said Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Arab distrust of American intentions intensified as the administration continued to support Israel's crackdown on the Palestinians. Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin last week has further inflamed passions in the region.

"In the Arab world, everything is interconnected,'' Al-Jubeir added. "To resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is a must, to reach justice and equality for the Palestinian people in the territories. Anything without (that) is not going to go anywhere."

Although administration officials have predicted that the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the implantation of democracy in that country will cause a flowering of freedom throughout the region, for many Arabs it appears that "the opposite has happened," said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "In the region, Iraq looks more like chaos, not a good model that people want to follow."

The collapse of the summit underscored the fact that intra-Arab diplomacy has long been marked by deep divisions -- not only the rivalries between close U.S. allies, such as Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, and nations with a hard line, such as Syria, but among rulers with poisonous personal grudges, such as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Tunisia's Ben Ali.

On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak criticized Tunisia for its "unwarranted" indefinite postponement of the summit and immediately offered to reconvene the meeting in Cairo. But Ben Ali rejected the proposal, and it seemed that even if some sort of meeting could be cobbled together, it would be more concerned with saving face than substantive debate.

Arab analysts said a major reason for the Tunis collapse was Ben Ali's unwillingness to allow serious consideration of the Arab world's leading peace proposal -- Crown Prince Abdullah's Arab Peace Initiative, adopted two years ago at an Arab League summit in Beirut.

The initiative offers Israel full normalization of relations with the Arab world in exchange for a total withdrawal from all territory occupied since 1967. Israel has opposed the plan, and U.S. officials have avoided taking a clear position on it.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell denied some Arab news reports that Ben Ali was acting under private orders from the United States to sabotage Abdullah's initiative.

"I was hoping the summit would be able to go ahead," Powell said. "I'm sure I'll be in touch with Arab foreign ministers in the course of the next day or so to get their assessment of the situation."

"The cancellation or postponement ... doesn't change in the least our commitment that we have to support homegrown reform and modernization in the Middle East," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

Dennis Ross, who served as the Clinton and Bush administrations' chief negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the tiff in Tunis: "I don't think this means the initiative is dead. It shows the turmoil in the Arab world right now, where some regimes are tied in knots over reform, trying to resist it any way they can. They're trying to repress it, but the force is growing, not declining. We should push it."

Ross pointed to a meeting earlier this month of democracy advocates in Alexandria, Egypt -- which ended with a manifesto endorsing reform -- as evidence that the desire for Western-style change was strong.

Ross said the Group of Eight industrialized nations should endorse the manifesto at its next summit in Sea Island, Ga., in June. "That would embolden the reformists," Ross said, "create a shield for them."

But some say Washington should step lightly because of widespread perceptions of a U.S. double standard -- that reform is only intended for America's enemies, not its allies.

"Any overt support from the United States would be the kiss of death for reformers in the Arab world," said Phyllis Bennis, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington.

The Alexandria meeting was sponsored by Mubarak, who has lavished praise on the concept of reform but has refused to free dissidents languishing in his own jails or to allow banned parties to operate freely.

"There has been no reform of an unusual nature anywhere in the Middle East, and there have been many steps backward because of the exigencies of the war on terror and the massive unpopularity of the Iraq war," said Cole.

He noted that Jordan and Yemen, both close U.S. allies, had been criticized by human rights groups for cracking down on legitimate dissent under the guise of chasing al Qaeda terrorists.

Bennis said the more powerful Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, "were given a pass when Bush announced the Greater Middle East Initiative. They were told by U.S. officials, 'Don't worry, we're not going to rock your boats as long as you acquiesce to our dictates.'

"The irony is that real reformers throughout the Arab world are critical of the U.S. position. Civil society is mobilizing, demanding real reforms."

Copyright © 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

###

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article

 
     
 
 

CommonDreams.org is an Internet-based progressive news and grassroots activism organization, founded in 1997.
We are a nonprofit, progressive, independent and nonpartisan organization.

Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives | Search

To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

Copyrighted 1997-2011