The unfolding chaos in Iraq is threatening the Bush administration’s ambitious plan to promote democratic reforms in the Middle East, experts and diplomats said.
The administration’s so-called Greater Middle East initiative, which is to be presented formally during a meeting of the G-8 group of industrialized nations in early June, has already elicited criticism from major Arab allies and skepticism from the European Union.
Spreading democracy in the Arab world was a key element in the administration’s case for going to war in Iraq, and looms as the most important motive following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or a clear Iraq-Al Qaeda link. But now, analysts say, the crisis in Iraq is emerging as an impediment to that very goal, further eroding the already limited reservoir of American credibility needed to move the reforms ahead.
“If we fail in Iraq, in addition to the chaos we will create in the region, it will be seen as the failure of democratization and other liberal reforms, and this whole ‘project’ will be dead,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official who wrote an influential book supporting the war in Iraq but has since expressed misgivings about the war and its aftermath.
A State Department official strongly rejected the notion that the Iraqi crisis was undermining the Middle East initiative. “I don’t see that at all, quite the contrary,” said Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for the State Department’s Near East affairs bureau. “Reform is still at the top of the agenda and Iraq shows we need a regional approach.”
Still, even staunch supporters of the war in Iraq agree that the current stalemate is cause for concern. “I think we have to succeed in Iraq, or at least have things on a positive trend, for such an effort to be plausible right now,” said James Woolsey, a former CIA director often associated with the neoconservative camp.
President Bush announced the initiative in a major speech on November 6 in which he declared an end to the traditional U.S. policy of supporting authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability.
But after a draft of the initiative was leaked to the London-based, Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, Arab leaders reacted furiously, deriding Washington’s seeming intention of imposing democracy from afar and not consulting them.
Opposition to the American plan from heavyweights Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria was a main reason for the postponement last month of a scheduled Arab League summit in Tunisia.
The administration has since been pressing the Arab countries to reconvene and present their own reform agenda before the G8 summit, which is to be held June 8-10 in Sea Island, Ga.
President Bush urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to support the initiative during their meeting Monday in Crawford, Texas. Arab ambassadors are expected to discuss it at a meeting this week at the State Department, and Arab foreign ministers are expected to raise the issue when they meet in the region in the coming weeks, a State Department official said.
But many analysts believe the administration faces an uphill task because of its deep-seated unpopularity in the region.
“Our credibility on democracy in the region, never high, has arguably sunk lower because Iraq’s progress towards democratization is so erratic,” said Noah Feldman, an assistant professor at New York University School of Law who advised the U.S. authority in Iraq on constitutional issues. “Most Arabs don’t think we are serious about democracy in Iraq — a view shared, of course, by many Europeans and not a few Americans. Building our credibility is a 25-year project, not a yearlong one — and can only work if we put our money where our mouth is and tie our support to liberalization and democratization.”
Even democracy advocates who embraced Bush’s November speech have since become disillusioned.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading Egyptian human rights activist, stressed during a discussion at Columbia University this week that the United States has “zero credibility in the Arab world” because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan, and because of its continued coddling of dictatorial regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Ibrahim, who was jailed for his pro-democracy activities for several years and freed largely due to international pressure, agreed that outside encouragement was key to advancing reforms in the Arab world. He urged the Bush administration, however, to speak more directly to Arab civil societies and to grant Europe a more central role in the democracy initiative because it has a better standing in the region, despite its colonial past.
Although they officially welcome the American involvement, the Europeans are wary of being too closely associated with Washington’s negative image in the region.
The European Union has its own dialogue with its Middle Eastern neighbors, named the Barcelona Process after the Spanish city where it was launched in 1995.
European officials admit that while economic and cultural exchanges have increased, the political reform dimension of this initiative has seriously lagged and they are eager to revive it — but on their own terms.
“We want to pursue the Barcelona Process and make sure it doesn’t get swallowed by the American initiative,” said a European ambassador in Washington. “We agree with the Americans on the objective, but there is a need to be very cautious, flexible, and above all, listen to what those societies and people are saying.”
The difference of approach is the reason why the European Union is expected to present its own reform agenda at an E.U. summit in June, said a European diplomat at the United Nations.
Still, the diplomat added, the administration has modified its approach following the uproar caused by the leak of the draft, most notably by heeding the European insistence on the need for a real partnership with the Arab countries and for a sustained effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
As a result, the diplomat and the State Department official said they fully expected a declaration of principles to be adopted at the G8 summit on Sea Island. But they added that the remaining differences are likely to prevent agreement on a more elaborate plan of action.
In addition, Americans and Europeans are at odds over the role of NATO. Washington would like to see NATO play a larger role in the Middle East and possibly set up a partnership modeled on the one with Eastern Europe after the Cold War. But the Europeans would prefer to remain within the framework of the existing dialogue between NATO and the Middle Eastern countries.
Diplomats said a consensus on the issue was unlikely before a NATO summit in Istanbul in late June.
While the European ambassador said he felt Bush was “very sincere” in his commitment to spread democracy in the region, Pollack, now director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, voiced his concerns. Among the main ones, he listed the “paltry” funding of the initiative, the continued “winking” at Arab leaders, as well as the failure to foster a real partnership with the people of the region and to garner wider international support.
“I really hope that the administration actually means to pursue this, because I do think it’s vital to our long-term security,” Pollack said. “We need to embark on a generation-long project to help the Arab world transform itself, and I fear that if we don’t, the problems we have experienced with Bin Laden, state failure in Lebanon, etc., will pale beside what we will face in the future.”