Middle East Initiative Queried

Is the U.S.-led plan to democratize the Middle East the right cure?


With the promotion of the Greater Middle East Initiative, which calls for realization of democratic politics, market economy and diversified cultures in the Middle East, disputes between regional countries and the United States have been on the rise, creating the major plot for this region’s future.

MEETING FOR ACTION: Foreign ministers of member countries of the League of Arab States meet in Cairo in early March, adopting a program for the organization’s reform in response to the U.S. Greater Middle East Initiative

To sell the initiative, which has not been formally published, senior officials of the Bush administration have paid frequent visits to Middle East countries and its allies in Europe in recent months, moves that are causing deep concern in the international community.

As disclosed, the U.S. initiative involves not only the 22 member countries of the League of Arab States, but also Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United States has put forward a series of measures to address political, economic, social and cultural problems in the region, especially Arab and Islamic countries, demanding that they carry out democratic reform and economic opening up, establish a free electoral system, separate education from Islamic fundamentalism, practice freedom of the press and speech, open the market and provide women with the freedom to join the army and conduct business.

At present, the Bush administration has made preparations for the promotion of the initiative in the budget for fiscal year 2004, putting more investment into the region so as to increase financial aid, intensify broadcasts to the region and contribute to amendment of textbooks for regional schools.

As early as the beginning of 2002 when the United States had just won the Afghan War, President Bush pointed out that a counter-terrorist campaign gave rise to opportunities for the United States to promote its values.

Before the United States launched the Iraq war, Bush proposed to establish a new authority in Iraq and set up a democratic example for other regional countries. In the 2004 State of the Union address, the U.S. president again stressed the necessity to promote democracy in the Middle East. Now that the United States has toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq has become the cornerstone of the U.S. Middle East transformation plan.

IRAQ STILL IN TERROR: Iraqis rush injured Shi’ite pilgrims away from the scene of a blast on March 2, 2004 after at least five explosions shook the holy city of Kerbala

This February, U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney reaffirmed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that democratic reform is crucial to change the current situation in the Middle East. This was the first time the superpower promoted its Greater Middle East Initiative at a multilateral platform.

As the Bush administration has been aware that it cannot complete such an enormous plan by itself, it is trying to win over the support of the international community, especially its European allies. Thus, in the initiative the Bush administration proposed an important role for the EU, in an attempt to mend the rift across the Atlantic caused by the Iraq war.

The superpower plans to formally propose its Greater Middle East Initiative at the G8 Summit this summer, hoping to reach consensus with its allies on the principles of Middle East political, economic and security transformation and approaches to implement the transformation.

In fact, European countries do share some views on promoting Middle East democracy and political reform with the United States, but some of them disagree on how to implement it. These countries are wary that once they are bound to the initiative, they will lose their independence and become subordinate to the superpower.

Moreover, most European governments doubt the feasibility of the initiative, saying it is very difficult to push U.S.-tailored political reform when the Arab-Israeli conflict remain unsolved. They have long maintained that any solution to the current problems in the Middle East should be based on the demands and aspiration of local people and it is unreasonable to impose any program unacceptable to regional countries. For example, France and Germany have jointly proposed the Bush administration adopt concrete actions to tackle the Palestine-Israeli conflicts and let the United Nations play a leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Arab countries have also questioned the U.S. initiative, considering it a wanton interference in their destiny. Countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed on the necessity of regional reform and foreign aid for the region, but rejected a uniform program imposed externally to transform the region with diversified conditions. They insisted that the motivation of reform should come from inside and any reform should follow local cultural, social and religious conditions. Furthermore, they maintained that reform should be carried out synchronously with the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Currently, members of the League of Arab States are increasing internal coordination so as to form their own programs in response to the U.S. initiative.

Under such circumstances, the United States hinted partial adjustments to its plan in accordance with the opinions of the Arab and European countries. U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has indicated that the United States won’t impose reform on Middle East countries, rather seeking a method of partnerships.

But it still needs further observation as to how the United States will face difficulties and challenges and what price it will pay in promoting the initiative. First, conditions in the Muslim world are very complicated. Islam has a strong cohesive force, penetrating every corner of these countries. Second, various countries involved in the U.S. initiative have distinct differences in national conditions. With interwoven tribal, religious, territorial and resources contradictions and uneven development in politics, economy and culture among those countries, one size may not fit all.

Furthermore, Western-style reform is very likely to break the current political, economic and social order in the Middle East, and thus be boycotted by the vested interest groups in the region. Under such circumstances, the fundamentalist forces, which have always sought to change the current situation, might benefit. Worse still, the U.S. pro-Israel stance and dual standards in handling the Arab-Israel conflicts over the past half a century have resulted in growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world, which is further aggravated by the superpower’s unilateral military action in Iraq.