November 07, 2003
Bush Mid East Policy

In his speech in Washington, President Bush was blunt in castigating what he (and the neo-conservatives) regard as the mistakes of the past.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," he declared.

If Mr Bush is as good as his word, it will mark a radical departure from the traditional realpolitik of American foreign policy.

But will he follow through? Already commentators around the world are pointing to the most obvious difficulties.

• How to convince Middle Easterners you are serious about human rights and democracy when, in Arab and Muslim eyes, a whole people - the Palestinians - are being denied their rights?

• How to be consistent and avoid the inevitable charge of double standards? Will Washington be indulgent, say, to the military-backed government in Algeria - whose human-rights abuses are well documented - because that government can be useful in the "war on terror"?

• Will the US put equal pressure on allies and enemies? Though Mr Bush said two allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had to do more, will he end up treating them with kid gloves, while reserving the bludgeon for Iran and Syria?

• If elections brought to power anti-US governments, would the US administration change its mind?

There is much scepticism about whether Mr Bush's goal is achievable and whether the administration, or for that matter the American people, have the staying power necessary for success.

But at the same time what is clear to anyone who visits the Middle East is that there is a huge pent-up demand for greater freedom.

For all their mistrust of the United States, many in the region will be hoping that, if there is sustained American pressure, their rulers will at last get serious about reform.

"No new programs announced, no new money for promoting democracy. Just rhetoric," said Martin Indyk, who was assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in the Clinton administration.

"The rhetoric isn't going to move the hardliners in Iran, [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat or the governments in Saudi Arabia and Egypt who are now scared of the consequences of the kind of political liberalization that the president is preaching to them," Indyk said after Bush issued his challenge in a speech Thursday.

"It's a good election speech," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. She said Bush's repudiation of decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East "didn't make us safer."

Bush's speech appeared aimed at complaints in the Arab world that the United States has long tolerated corrupt, undemocratic regimes in return for stability and a reliable supply of oil. Washington began to rethink its policy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the emergence of deep hostility in the Mideast toward the United States. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

Posted by tstubbs at November 07, 2003 11:49 AM
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