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To fight terror, Bush plays democracy card

But his rhetoric calling for reforms may offend some key allies.

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"It would be wonderful if the administration were applying a consistent policy of promoting and defending democracy in the Arab world, but that is not at all the case," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

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He points to the US government's "almost complete silence" after the conviction in Egypt last month of Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent reform advocate, on what international human rights advocates say were trumped-up forgery and bribery charges.

If the US wants to be heard as a power that understands how lack of freedoms engender terrorism, Mr. Gerges says it's not working. "The dominant narrative in the region is that for the US, democracy is a gimmick it uses to stay in the bed it's made with authoritarian regimes," he concludes after two months of travel in the region.

Some observers have questioned US motives for demanding that the Palestinians practice full democracy before they achieve statehood. "The demands seems so impossible that they raise the suspicion that it's just a device to get the US out of the business of arbitrating between the Israelis and Palestinians," Mr. Noyes of the Hoover Institution says.

Mr. Gunaratna from St. Andrews says that the "classic example" of the US placing security above principles is in Central Asia and in particular in Uzbekistan, where thousands of suspected Islamists – most of whom are regime opponents – languish in prison.

At the same time, he says, the US should be putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to democratize so Saudis don't feel that their only hope for reform is through extremists like Osama bin Laden.

Once it was learned that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, that country's incubation of Islamic terrorists took the spotlight. US-Saudi relations faced gale-force winds, though the Bush administration labored to keep them on even keel.

But the spotlight intensified after it was revealed that the Pentagon last month hosted a briefing where a Rand Corp. analyst labeled Saudi Arabia an "enemy." The PowerPoint presentation – which according to Slate magazine concluded with "Iraq is the tactical pivot; Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot, Egypt the prize" – advocated an invasion of the keeper of Islam's holiest sites unless the regime stopped all support for terror networks.

The Bush administration acted quickly to assure the Saudi government that the briefing had nothing to do with US policy. But it nevertheless demonstrates building interest – both within some White House offices and among some increasingly influential voices outside government – in the democracy-security connection.

For example, in May William Kristol, chairman of New American Century and a leading neoconservative voice, called at congressional hearings for the US to "find an alternative ... to a Saudi regime that funds and foments terror." He presented "regime change" in Iraq as a place to start, saying that "a representative government in Baghdad would demonstrate that democracy can work in the Arab world."