Global Policy Forum

Bush's Vision Fails to Win Over Middle East


By Simon Tisdall

November 15, 2005

Jack Straw put his finger on it. Speaking after a disputatious Middle East summit in Bahrain at the weekend, the foreign secretary said: "It would be a disaster if this region thought democracy was an American idea." Many in the region appear to think exactly that - and have ideas of their own.

Washington's latest disappointment came when a 30-country Middle East "democratic manifesto" statement was torpedoed in Bahrain. Backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt insisted that governments should decide which activist groups benefited from a new $50m (£29m) regional democracy fund.

The summit was part of a process begun by George Bush's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington in 2003. Speaking before US control in Iraq began to unravel, the president predicted a regional revolution. "Many Middle Eastern governments now understand that military dictatorship and theocratic rule are a straight, smooth highway to nowhere ... they are beginning to see the need for change," Mr Bush said. "The US has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Backed by Liz Cheney, the vice-president's daughter and state department expert, and Karen Hughes, Mr Bush's image polisher-in-chief, Condoleezza Rice is trying to turn presidential vision into reality. During her current, didactic Middle East tour the secretary of state won a Saudi pledge for $1bn in Iraq reconstruction aid. She reminded Palestinians that groups such as Hamas must be disarmed. And she made clear that Syria was the region's democratic dunce. "We would like to see democracy, liberty and justice under the rule of law," she said. But Ms Rice and colleagues have encountered a range of obstacles.

The Cheney name, associated with the Iraq invasion, has negative connotations on the Arab street. Ms Hughes's recent goodwill tour was widely ridiculed. Ms Rice's call for international monitoring of Egypt's presidential election last June was rejected. Like this month's parliamentary polls, the process - portrayed by Washington as a watershed moment for Arab reform - was dogged by fraud claims. Likewise, Lebanon's US-backed "cedar revolution" is looking root-bound. Saudi Arabia promised to provide funds for Iraq more than two years ago but has not delivered. Like Kuwait and the UAE, Riyadh has refused to forgive $48bn in Saddam-era debt. And despite western urgings, many Arab countries have still not resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

Although Ms Rice signalled an agreement on post-withdrawal Gaza yesterday, violence by both sides continues while Washington seems powerless to break the overall peace process logjam. Her veiled threats against Syria may have reinforced fears that the US will again resort to force if it does not get its way. Broader Arab concerns about an imposed US agenda include Sunni-led governments' worries that democracy in Iraq is producing another potentially antagonistic Shia power, standing alongside Iran.

US policy could even undermine its own security goals, said Professor Gregory Gause in Foreign Affairs magazine. "Based on public opinion surveys and recent elections in the Arab world, the advent of democracy there seems likely to produce new Islamist governments that would be much less willing to cooperate with the US than are the current authoritarian rulers," he said. Far from celebrating Mr Bush's "rising tide" of reform yesterday, Ms Rice was obliged to divert to the scene of last week's al-Qaida bombs in Amman. She still has a long road to travel.

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