Flashlight on the Potomac


M. Cherif Bassiouni, the noted international law professor, said in a recent interview that the Bush administration’s proposal for reforming the Arab world, called the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), reminded him of an Arab folktale featuring Goha, a mythical character whose misadventures are the basis of popular adages.

In one of these fables, a man on his way home late at night stumbles upon Goha, who is crawling around the ground on his hands and knees, bathed in the glow of a solitary street lamp. The man asks what he’s doing. Looking for his watch, Goha replies, and gestures toward the other end of the street, which is pitch black. Puzzled, the man peers down the street, seeing nothing but darkness. “So, why are you looking here?” he asks.

“Because here,” Goha replies, “there is light.”

Bassiouni laughed. “This initiative was tailored entirely in the ‘light’ of the Potomac,” he said. “But what this administration has lost—namely credibility—is still out there in the dark somewhere. This will be received as demeaning and insulting. It will spend money that will go down the drain. It uses all the wrong people, the wrong means, and the wrong tools. When it fails, people in Washington will just say the Arab world is doomed.”

Indeed, in the days after Bassiouni’s remarks, press accounts suggested that the GMEI may well have run aground, though the U.S. State Department insists that, for now, the proposal is still afloat. A U.S. official told the Voice they might change the name of the initiative to make it sound friendlier.

But if it is dead, in its short life the plan provoked quite a storm: European diplomats who read the GMEI called it problematic, a fiat that said nothing about the Palestinians. Arab leaders, when they finally found out about it in the Arab press, were furious. And many activists in the region, the “reformers” the initiative was ostensibly meant to help, also found it hard to swallow, for their own reasons.

“The U.S. pressure actually helps and it hurts,” said Abdel Monem Said Aly, a prominent Egyptian intellectual. The money that accompanies such initiatives helps. But, he added, “America is giving reform and liberalism a bad name. And it brings the whole American issue into the Egyptian reform debate,” he said. “It’s not the best time for American liberalism.”

On the surface, there is little in the GMEI that is outwardly disagreeable. Drawing on the findings of the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR), the proposal intends to reduce all sorts of “deficits,” especially those in trade, freedom, knowledge, and women’s rights. The proposal followed President Bush’s ambitious speeches on the region.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” Bush told a crowd at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in November. This was potentially a startling admission, and had the sound of a new doctrine: “In the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” A U.S. president had repudiated an unending litany of America’s crooked deals, interventions, and missteps in the region, rejecting also, maybe, the upkeep of various despots previously called allies.

But “liberty” wasn’t the message Bush was sending that day. It was “safety.”

A closer read of the GMEI suggests that it was conceived as a security document, not a development road map. “So long as the region’s pool of politically and economically disenfranchised individuals grows,” read the administration’s draft, leaked to the London-based daily Al Hayat, “we will witness an increase in extremism, terrorism, international crime, and illegal migration.” The Greater Middle East the president sees, and the one the plan encapsulates, includes the Arab countries, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Israel, a vast grouping familiar to American generals, perhaps, but no one else, and certainly not the authors of the AHDR.

It didn’t help that the proposal originated in the National Security Council, which imagined a modern-day version of the Helsinki Accords.

“The Helsinki Process was not confined to human rights and political reform,” said Abdel Raouf el Reedy, a former Egyptian ambassador to Washington, now living in Cairo. “It actually started with the Eastern European countries asking for confirmation of the political frontiers that had emerged as a result of the Second World War. And that’s what we need here. In order to make economic and political reform, we need a healthy regional environment.”

Helsinki provided for cooperation between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, a security agreement that guaranteed economic, social, and human rights. Strangely, the GMEI made no mention of the security problems plaguing the Middle East, including the de facto state of war between Israel and many of its neighbors, its occupation of Palestinian land, and the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. America’s allies tried again to deliver the message.

“We believe . . . that any modernization in this region presupposes a peace settlement between the Palestinian and the Israeli people,” said French president Jacques Chirac on March 5, with Hosni Mubarak at his side. Chirac called the conflict “the heart of the difficulty,” and urged progress in Iraq, saying the two issues were “prerequisites” to reform.

But on this question, the U.S. continues to believe it knows best, maintaining that these conflicts are separable, and that the Arab fixation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows a lack of maturity. Most of the world, including a legion of retired American diplomats, disagrees. This includes Zbigniew Brzezinski, who argued in a March 8 New York Times op-ed piece that without efforts to help the Palestinians, “democracy will seem to many in the Arab world to be window dressing for continued external domination.”

For a moment last fall at the NED, President Bush seemed to understand.

“Time after time,” he said, “observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, are ‘ready’ for democracy—as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress.”

Sadly though, that is exactly what Bush has asked of the Palestinians. Not only have the results of their last presidential contest—the only transparent Arab election in recent memory—been nullified by the U.S., but self-determination has become, quite literally, contingent on prerequisites demanded by Washington: not a right, but a prize.

Professor Bassiouni was a consultant on the pre-war Future of Iraq project, the State Department initiative to rebuild Iraq that was shelved by the Pentagon after the war. Now, the institute he heads at DePaul University has the contract to rebuild the Iraqi legal system. In short, he is no knee-jerk rejectionist of American involvement in the region.

“There might be a silver lining in all this,” he said, noting that the U.S. initiative seems to have prodded the Egyptians and the Saudis to create their own rival plan. “The administration should just declare victory, and give up.”

Additional reporting by Matthew Craft in Cairo.

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