Bush’s Middle East Plan, Interrupted


George W. Bush’s promise to reform the Middle East, first made in a November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, is by now a fixture of his campaign platform, a morally precise adjunct to his other grand foreign policy projects, which include the war on terror and regime change in Iraq. Polls suggest that Americans value Bush’s leadership on such issues, and feel that he, rather than John Kerry, has a vision for America’s role in the world.

And so it was as he concluded the G-8 summit last week in Sea Island, Georgia, when he told reporters that “the spread of freedom throughout the broader Middle East is the imperative of our age.” The U.S. and its highly industrialized partners had just formalized a version of Bush’s reform plan, which observers called a more pragmatic and politically sensitive version of a working draft leaked to an Arab newspaper in February.

“Across the Middle East,” Bush said after the summit, “a consensus is emerging on the need for change . . . . The nations of the G-8 recognize our special responsibility to help the people of the Middle East achieve the progress they seek. And here at Sea Island, we pledged that our nations will help further the causes of freedom and reform to help an increasing number of people join in the progress of our times.”

In the framework of the presidential campaign, the initiative is a work of small genius that boldly commits the U.S. ideologically to change in the “Broader Middle East and North Africa,” and practically, obliges very little, save some regular discussion on the subject and support for already existing initiatives. One can bet that going forward, the plan will inhabit a coveted space on the list of Bush’s accomplishments.

The president may well take credit for what appears to be an accelerating debate over issues like democratization and human rights in the region. The American initiative, when it surfaced last fall, caused an outcry from Arab leaders, who demanded that reform initiatives not be imposed, and then scrambled to show they were reforming on their own. There were a number of regional conferences, and even talk by the Egyptian and Saudi governments—who chose not to attend the Georgia summit—of rival modernization initiatives.

Robert Malley, director of the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group, called the G-8 initiative moderate and not all that different from earlier drafts. “It doesn’t have much of what people would call ‘hard democracy initiatives’,” he said in a phone interview. “There is little about human rights and democracy in a confrontational way.”

The U.S., its credibility wrecked by Iraq and Abu Ghraib and its unflinching support for Israel, wasn’t in a position to confront anyone. And despite language in the G-8 document about “local ownership” of reform, Bush certainly wasn’t about to reverse the long-held U.S. notion that progress is a compact between business leaders, free-market bureaucrats, and secular activists. That formula, which omits Islamist groups and Arab nationalists, stumbled in post-war Iraq, and looks likely to fall short elsewhere in the Arab world.

“We push for reform and democracy, and some of that support won’t go to the liberal modernizers we’re comfortable with,” Malley said. “The most dynamic forces are the moderate Islamists and Arab nationalists. Islamist voices today are at the forefront of fights for greater political participation and freedom of expression. We have to come to terms with that dilemma. One could have trepidation about other aspects of their policy, but that’s another dilemma.”

While Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak testily maintained he had his own reform agenda, last month his government moved against the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, arresting 50 of its members. Last week, Akram el-Zahiri, one of the Brothers arrested in the sweep, died while in custody, allegedly after wounds he received during his arrest remained untended by authorities. And in April, a human rights group appointed by the government postponed a recommendation to scrap Egypt’s notorious Emergency Laws, in place now for over 20 years.

“It’s hard for us to stand on our high horse, and lecture about reform,” said Malley. “It has to come from an administration that has credibility.”