Vision Advances Mission-Creep in Mideast
In what the White House billed as a major address, President George W. Bush Thursday announced the United States has adopted a new policy he called "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
The speech, which comes amid growing public and congressional unease about the costs and duration of the US occupation of Iraq, appeared designed to rally support by casting the occupation as part of an historic mission by Washington to spread liberty and democracy around the world.
But independent analysts warned that Bush's sweeping rhetoric could backfire against him, both by fueling concerns about his administration's larger regional ambitions and by creating expectations that are unlikely to be met, even in Iraq.
"The rhetoric is meaningless if the reality on the ground gets much worse," said Geoffrey Kemp, a top Middle East adviser to former President Ronald Reagan and currently with the Richard M. Nixon Center, a think tank here.
In an interview he also noted that Bush's praise of authoritarian allies in the region could well provoke more cynicism about US intentions among democratic forces there.
"This is part of an increasingly desperate attempt by the administration to shore up support for Iraq," said Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"A war that was supposed to be about national security must now be cast as a war for Wilsonian liberalism," he told IPS.
The speech was addressed to the 20th anniversary celebrations of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental agency created under Reagan that funds political activities abroad.
Invoking Reagan repeatedly, Bush insisted that the occupation in Iraq marks "another great turning point" signaling the "next stage of the world democratic movement" after the Cold War.
"Communism, and militarism, and rule by the capricious and corrupt are the relics of a passing era," Bush declared, noting that "our commitment to democracy is tested in countries like Cuba, and Burma and North Korea and Zimbabwe, outposts of oppression in our world."
"We will stand with these oppressed peoples until the day of liberation and freedom finally arrives," he added.
Bush said decolonization in the Middle East had led to the creation of "many dictatorships," some of which allied themselves "with the Soviet bloc and with international terrorism."
"Dictators in Iraq and Syria promised the restoration of national honor, a return to ancient glories. They've left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin," he added.
In spite of this history, he went on, "governments across the Middle East and North Africa are beginning to see the need for change."
Bush cited in particular political reforms implemented by Morocco's King Mohammed; recent elections in Bahrain and Jordan; the extension of suffrage to all adult citizens in Oman; a new constitution in Qatar; "a multiparty political system" in Yemen; and a directly-elected national assembly in Kuwait.
"These are the stirrings of Middle Eastern democracy," he said, "and they carry the promise of greater change to come."
In Iran, Bush claimed, the demand for democracy "is strong and broad," and he warned that the "regime in Teheran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people or lose its last claim to legitimacy."
As for the Palestinians, "the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy," said Bush, who, without naming elected President Yasser Arafat, warned that leaders "who block and undermine democratic reform and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all."
Democratization need not take the form of "westernization," Bush stressed, suggesting that Middle East states could be "constitutional monarchies, federal republics or parliamentary systems."
But they should include certain "central principles," like limits on the powers of the state and the military; the rule of law; space for civil society, political parties, labor unions and a free press; religious liberty; the privatization of the economy; and guarantees of women's rights.
All of these, Bush said, are now being applied to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The failure of Iraqi democracy," he warned, would embolden terrorists around the world, and increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region."
As a result, Washington should put an end to "60 years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East (which) did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
"Therefore the United States has adopted a new policy a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."
While his remarks no doubt gave heart to neo-conservative hawks dispirited by recent setbacks in Iraq, the fact that Bush announced no new programs to back up his soaring rhetoric was noted privately, even by NED staffers who gave him a warm welcome.
The administration asked Congress last year to provide 140 million dollars in a new initiative to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, a tiny fraction of the nearly 70 billion it is spending to sustain its military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The speech was "an attempt to put a very positive spin" on recent events "to convince a public that is becoming more skeptical about the benefits of the war in Iraq that it already has had very positive impacts on the area," according to Marina Ottaway, co-director of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"I don't think this will be seen as very convincing in the Arab world or to people here who are familiar with recent developments there," she added in an interview.
Ottaway described the speech as a "double-edged sword" for Bush, primarily because of the fading likelihood that elections for a new government in Iraq a precondition set by Washington for transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people can be held before next year's presidential elections here.
Any premature transfer to shortcut the process, as Bush will be tempted to do, "is likely to be very messy," she said.
Kemp said the speech particularly the different treatment accorded US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the emirates on the one hand, and perceived foes, such as Syria and Iran on the other will be greeted in the region as another example of the administration's double standards.
"The irony is that to succeed in Afghanistan, the US embraced two very powerful dictators, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, and he didn't mention either one," noted Kemp.
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since the well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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