Institute Newsbyte examines the latest iteration of the U.S. initiative to promote democracy in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON—The latest iteration of the U.S. initiative to promote reform in the Middle East, due to be unveiled June 9 at the G-8 Summit, seeks to move the democracy promotion agenda forward. At the same time, the U.S.-led Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative and its centerpiece "forum for the future"—which seeks to bring together G-8 and regional ministers to discuss reform—face critical challenges.

Revisions made to the initiative in the past few months attempt to allay concerns that the United States wants to impose reform on the Middle East rather than work in partnership with the region and Europe. New language stresses the importance of dialogue and consultation and also highlights the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the positive role the United Nations can play in Iraq.

The changes made to the initiative have produced some positive developments. Most important, America’s focus on reform has energized discussion of the issue in the Middle East. Numerous statements and declarations on the need for reform have emanated from government and non-government entities in the Arab world. Several groups—including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—have published platforms laying out the essential elements of homegrown reform. In addition, some governments in the region have undertaken their own internal reform programs. Meanwhile, the Arab League recently adopted a 13-point program, representing the first joint pledge for reform in its history. Even if government calls for reform are cosmetic rather than real, they offer a potential entry point for the promotion of genuine change. Equally significant, the debate over reform has penetrated Arab popular discourse: in newspapers, on television call-in shows, and via Internet chat rooms and weblogs.

Second, the initiative has provoked a heightened sense of competition from our European allies in the area of democracy promotion. Specifically, the EU has accelerated internal discussions on how to re-invigorate the Barcelona Process, particularly its democracy promotion aspects. Ideally, Europe’s intensified interest in democracy promotion also will spur greater competition within the region for funds. The European strategy of creating "Action Plans" promises increased funds to countries that fulfill specific actions in the area of human rights and political reform. Such enhanced reform incentives could induce greater movement on reform from the region.

Third, the Broader Middle East Initiative places significant emphasis on the need for multilateral cooperation. The tremendous challenges inherent in Middle East democracy promotion demand that the United States and Europe work together. Through greater dialogue and consultation, the G-8 can strengthen existing complementarities, while eliminating redundancies.

Successful implementation of the latest initiative faces two key challenges. First, America’s standing in the Middle East is at a nadir. Mounting instability in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence have contributed to growing anti-American sentiment. U.S. approval ratings hovered in the single digits prior to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. U.S. appeals for democracy in the Middle East ring hollow against this backdrop.

America’s credibility gap is evident in Europe as well. Some European policymakers have expressed reluctance for more concrete cooperation with the United States in the Middle East. Many Europeans question the depth and sustainability of the U.S. commitment to reform. Others point to the weight of America’s flagging credibility dragging down European programs and policies as well.

Second, the initiative does not articulate a clear implementation strategy. The latest proposal couches the need for reform within the confines of regional governments’ willingness to promote change. Given the voluntary aspect of the plan’s proposed political reforms, it is unclear how governments will be enticed into implementing reform.

The United States must address these challenges if the initiative is to succeed. First, building U.S. standing in the Middle East and Europe is a long-term proposition, requiring sustained commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ensuring a peaceful, stable Iraq.

Second, with regard to the implementation of reforms, conditioning aid on meeting certain political reform benchmarks constitutes one approach. Alternatively, linking lucrative incentives, e.g. WTO accession, to fulfillment of clearly-defined reform goals might yield greater success. Currently, the proposal does not appear to include mechanisms that will ensure genuine movement toward political reform.

Third, the United States must harmonize its policies in support of the Global War on Terrorism with its desire to promote reform. In the past, regional regimes were sent mixed messages. U.S. officials applauded security and intelligence cooperation from Arab governments. Yet, crackdowns on suspected terrorists, in the name of fighting terrorism, often result in human rights violations and an increase in repression. A successful policy promoting reform must answer the vexing question of how to nurture civil society guarding against extremism.

Finally, the initiative must grapple with the role of political Islam, one of the region’s most powerful forces for change. Reform is widely viewed as a potent antidote to extremism, but the role of moderate Islamists, who are often best poised to exploit political opening, has not been fully considered. Credible reform must be inclusive. Any successful plan for the broader Middle East will need to develop approaches for effectively engaging moderate Islamists.


This Newsbyte was written Mona Yacoubian, Special Advisor to the Institute's Special Initiative on the Muslim World. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.

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