The United States has quietly
retreated from its high-profile push for democracy in the
Muslim world, since the Hamas election stunned the Bush
administration by bringing a violent militant group to power.
Despite President George W. Bush's continued public focus
on democratization, analysts say U.S. policy-makers saw the
Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories as part of a
potentially dangerous trend following democratic gains for the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In each instance, elections were seen to boost adversaries
of U.S. ally Israel, and in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah,
groups labeled as terrorist organizations by Washington.
The experience in Iraq, which U.S. officials once
envisioned as the catalyst for democratic change in Arab
countries, has emerged instead as a disturbing symbol of
"Frankly, the administration has retreated even from a
passive push for democracy," said Michael Rubin, resident
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative
Washington is now largely silent about actions taken by
Middle East regimes to suppress political opposition.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who made an
impassioned speech about democracy in Cairo last year, did not
publicly criticize Egypt's repressive tactics during her recent
"A lot of regimes are detecting a green light to go back to
the past," Rubin said. "It's undercut any kind of credibility
the United States has, not just now but well into the future,
in any calls for reform."
Policy analysts have warned that eroding U.S. credibility
on democratization jeopardizes American efforts to use reform
as a weapon against growing Islamist militancy and al Qaeda
They say the United States faces a generational struggle in
the Muslim world, where deep-seated suspicion about American
motives is exacerbated by the repressive and corrupt practices
of governments allied with Washington.
"Greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in
Muslim-majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances
jihadists exploit," according to a recently declassified
intelligence report on global terrorism trends.
'PERCEPTION OF HYPOCRISY'
The credibility problem is complicated by Bush's use of the
democracy theme in speeches. Before the U.N. General Assembly,
he portrayed the United States as a friend of freedom but cited
autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, as reformers.
"People in the region know about the Saudi government.
They're not naive," said Thomas Carothers, head of the
Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for
"The perception of hypocrisy is extremely high," he said.
Ellen Laipson, former vice chairwoman of the National
Intelligence Council, a leading government think tank,
suggested the White House may have now adopted a more
pragmatic, longer term approach to reform.
"It is not something that they're going to be able to say
they completed on their watch, or that they even know it is
going to work on their watch," said Laipson, now head of the
Henry L. Stimson Center, a public policy institute.
The Bush administration has supported democratization
through programs such the Middle East Partnership Initiative,
which has allocated almost $300 million over four years to
reform, education and economic development.
But according to Rubin and former intelligence officials,
democratization was never fully embraced by rank-and-file
officials including diplomats, partly because the National
Security Council failed to establish it as a priority.
Pro-democracy groups in Arab countries have become
increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful
reform. This year, Saudi liberals said they had abandoned hope
the United States would pressure the government, even
privately, to reform the absolute monarchy.
Even in Afghanistan, which Washington showcases as a
democratic success story, observers cite a lack of
follow-through on last year's elections for parliament and
"We are particularly concerned that there appears to be no
effort going into helping build political parties ... as well
as no talk of the district and municipal elections that are
supposed to be held under the constitution," said Joanna
Nathan, a Kabul-based analyst for International Crisis Group.
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