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Skepticism Greets Bush’s Mideast Plan

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s new Greater Middle East Initiative, touted by officials as a major push to promote democracy across the Arab and Muslim world, is receiving mixed reviews from Middle East experts, diplomats and even some administration officials.

Critics said that the initiative, disclosed February 9 by the Washington Post and partially confirmed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, follows a string of sweeping — but so far unproductive — promises to bring reform to the Muslim world since the attacks of September 2001.

“People are weary,” said Peter Singer, director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There is speech after speech and then nothing happening.”

On its merits, the new initiative seems “pretty positive,” but “until there is actual, fully-funded programming it’s hard to comment on it,” said Singer, who served as a Balkans specialist at the Clinton-era Pentagon. “The proof will be in the pudding.”

The initiative, not yet formally released, is said to envision a broad range of incentives for Middle Eastern nations to adopt political, social and market reforms. Nations that institute reforms would be offered trade deals and military support from America and its main European allies.

Washington is to present the plan to a June meeting of the G8 industrialized nations in Sea Island, Georgia. The State Department confirmed that last weekend Powell discussed the project with the French and Dutch foreign ministers. Powell told reporters about the initiative after a Monday meeting with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain.

Officials describe the program as inspired by the so-called “Helsinki Process” of the early 1970s, which established a model for multilateral cooperation that is regarded as having advanced liberalization in the former Soviet bloc.

Bush and his top aides have spoken repeatedly in the past year of their commitment to change in the Middle East. To date, however, only one modestly funded and scantily staffed program has been launched at the State Department, the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

The new initiative incorporates recommendations from advisory panels and think tanks exploring the prospects for Middle East reform since MEPI was founded in 2002. One key recommendation for the latest effort is to work in collaboration with European allies, who enjoy more credibility than America in the region. The other key recommendation is to work with local reformers in the region, to avoid the impression that America is seeking to impose its values and way of life.

The Bush team’s reported commitment to cooperation with European and other allies may compel them to “keep their eyes on the ball,” said one State Department official. “But it still remains to be seen what will really evolve.”

Middle East specialists at the State Department have been expressing frustration for more than a year with the slow implementation of the earlier Middle East initiative. Trumpeted on the State Department’s Web site as “the administration’s primary diplomatic policy and development programmatic tool” for reform in the Arab world, that initiative emerged after lengthy discussions following the September 11 attacks. But when it was finally launched, under the leadership of the vice president’s daughter Elizabeth Cheney, it received only $29 million for its first year. It got an additional $100 million in 2003.

“Most of that money is still in the bank, and programs are very slow to be initiated and implemented,” an administration official intimately familiar with MEPI told the Forward. “There is a consensus that this will be a generational evolutionary march,” the official said. “It took the world 50 years to ultimately win the Cold War, and the West must make a similar commitment to bring about change in the Middle East.”

Skepticism also stems from the murky details of the new initiative, which embraces a broad swath of Muslim states including Afghanistan. “There is very little in common between Afghanistan and, say, Jordan,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor of international affairs at the University of Maryland, who often advises the administration on Middle East issues.

Moreover, Telhami said, the administration’s reported intention to model this initiative after the American-backed reform in the Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 1980s “raises questions.” Back then, Telhami said, “there really was an Iron Curtain,” and those behind it looked longingly to America as an alternative. In today’s transparent world of omnipresent media, he said, America is widely disliked and resented, especially in the Middle East.

Many in the region would also be skeptical of what could be seen as an election-year political gimmick, said Telhami, who frequently polls public opinion in the Arab world.

“It’s a political winner which shifts the debate on the Middle East” away from the quagmire in Iraq and the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Telhami said.

Administration officials describing the initiative this week emphasized that progress on the initiative could give a push to America’s Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts. But this assertion appeared to have few supporters outside the administration. “It remains to be seen how successful the administration can be [with the new initiative] as long as there is no progress on the road map,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Singer of Brookings concurred. Without being perceived as actively pushing for Middle East peace, he said, the administration would lack credibility with local partners. “Like it or not,” Singer said, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians “strongly resonates in the region.”

Singer and Telhami both pointed to another possible source of skepticism toward the administration’s intentions: its apparent readiness to let domestic and political interests repeatedly take priority over Middle East needs.

As an example, both men cited a high-profile U.S.-Islamic World Forum held last month in Doha, Qatar, which brought together hundreds of Muslim leaders to discuss relations with America. No fewer than six representatives of the Bush administration were invited to attend the event, but none attended, reportedly because former President Clinton was scheduled to appear on the program.

The cancellation by the six officials was the topic of a critical article last week in the conservative Weekly Standard by Marc Ginsberg, who served as U.S. ambassador to Morocco during the Clinton administration. In the absence of an American official representing the Bush administration, the former Democratic president ironically became the primary defender of Bush’s Middle East policy, Ginsberg wrote.

“It was very clear that there was a last moment cancellation — I don’t know why — but it seemed a little bit odd that no one showed up,” Telhami told the Forward.

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