U.S. Slows Bid to Advance Democracy in Arab World
By JOEL BRINKLEY
WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 - When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other senior American officials arrive at a summit meeting in Morocco next week that is intended to promote democracy across the Arab world, they have no plans to introduce any political initiatives to encourage democratic change.
President Bush started speaking in 2002 about the need to bring democracy to the Arab nations. Since then, however, the popular view of the United States in the region has grown so dark, even hateful, that American officials are approaching the meeting with caution and with a package of financial and social initiatives that have only a scant relationship to the original goal of political change.
Administration officials and their allies defend the change in strategy, saying the United States should no longer try to take the lead.
"Others have gotten involved in the political side, and that is a good thing," said Lorne W. Craner, who was assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights until August and now is president of the International Republican Institute, a government-financed organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide. But administration officials said some senior officials in the State Department were frustrated by the unwillingness of their colleagues to raise political initiatives at the meeting.
A senior administration official involved in Middle East policy said that if the American program remained largely centered on business and financial initiatives, "that's not good enough." The United States needs "to hold people accountable," he added.
Another official working in the same area added that Arab leaders were "willing to take the aid, but they're not willing to carry out the reform."
Mr. Powell, in a radio interview on Thursday, said he hoped the summit meeting participants would "come to an understanding of the need for reform and modernization in the broader Middle East and North Africa region."
When the State Department set up a news media briefing last month on the Morocco meeting, it assigned Alan P. Larson, undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, to make the presentation. He said the meeting was intended "to create greater opportunities for the next generation in the broader Middle East" through grants and aid to small businesses, networking among regional financial institutions and exchanging "views about how to bring more capital in the region," among other ideas. The United States is involved in most of those efforts through its Middle East Partnership Initiative.
In an interview, Mr. Larson contended that these and other financial proposals would contribute to democratic change, at least indirectly.
"When you help small entrepreneurs, that creates a middle-class part of the social underpinning of a democracy," he said. "We see synergistic links between political and economic initiatives."
He and other officials said more direct discussions of political change would come from the Democratic Assistance Dialogue, a new program administered by Italy, Turkey and Yemen intended to foster discussion of political change. But after an initial organizational meeting in Rome last month, future meetings have not yet been scheduled, said Burak Akcapar, counselor in the Turkish Embassy.
The Middle East Partnership Initiative, which has received $264 million from Congress since 1993, has a political component. But a study by two scholars at the Brookings Institution, published this week, found that it was "increasingly shifting its resources from democracy promotion and engagement with local volunteer organizations, to the far less provocative path of regime-led economic development."
That "can have the effect of subsidizing an Arab government's attempts to build a kinder, gentler autocracy," it added.
"The whole thing rings hollow," said Steven A. Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan research group based in New York. "What is missing is not technical and financial know-how, it is the political will to reform," said Mr. Cook, whose field of study is political change in the Arab world. "I don't think these programs mesh with the president's rhetoric."
At the briefing, Mr. Larson emphasized repeatedly that the Morocco conference was not "an effort to impose anything from the outside as much as to facilitate efforts that are already being undertaken in the region" and "share experiences, share ideas" among Arab foreign ministers.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a public research organization, said, "If only the Arab leaders are involved, that will be a brief discussion."
Anger about a perceived bias toward Israel in Washington and about the war in Iraq have made the United States quite unpopular among many in the Arab world. Then, in February, when an Arabic newspaper published a draft of a Bush administration plan urging the world's wealthiest nations to press for political change in the Middle East, several Arab leaders erupted in anger. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a close ally of Washington, called the plan "delusional."
The administration quickly abandoned the plan.
The unspoken fact behind all of the discussions, said Leslie Campbell, director of the Middle East Program at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a government-financed group that promotes democracy worldwide, "is that we are trying to work with a bunch of people who are going to be kicked out of office" if democratic change moves forward. For now, he added, "it's easier to support free-trade agreements than political change."
Now, not only do many Arab leaders oppose the plan for broad democratic change, so do some opposition leaders.
"The Bush plan is opposed by the ruling elites who fear losing their privileges and powers," wrote Amir Taheri, a political commentator, in Gulf News, "and by a variety of oppositionists who use anti-Americanism as the key element of their political message."
There is little question that Arab leaders prefer the new approach. A senior Arab diplomat said in an interview that when American officials spoke to his nation's prime minister about political change recently, "the prime minister told them: 'I have two trains - the political train and the economic train. And the political train cannot run ahead of the other.'
"So we started talking to them about economic development," the diplomat said.
A senior State Department official said discussions with several Arab states brought similar results.
In a speech to open a session of Parliament on Wednesday, King Abdullah II of Jordan emphasized that his country must continue "reform, modernization and development," which would enable "the Jordanian individual to actively take part in formulating the present and the future." He went on to emphasize that change should be focused on fighting "poverty and unemployment."
Mr. Craner, the former State Department official, said: "I would watch for the prominence of political versus economic and social reforms discussed at the meeting. If it is mostly economic and social, it is not a good sign."
The senior Arab diplomat offered a broader warning.
"Something must happen as a result of this meeting," he said. "If nothing happens, it will be very difficult to keep this alive because there are lots of people who want to kill it."
Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washington for this article.