BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — Whether the US wars with Iraq or not, it should understand that only through careful diplomacy - not force - is there hope for undermining extremism and diminishing anti-Americanism in the world of Islam.
There is no need to sell the idea of America to Muslims, because many of them are dazzled with the American dream.
It's America's "unjust, inconsistent" foreign policy that most Muslim grievances focus on.
Now State Department officials appreciate that winning Muslim hearts and minds requires a broader political strategy than relying on slick commercials produced by the revived Office of Public Diplomacy.
Indeed, recent pronouncements by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his aides show signs of movement in the right direction by taking into account the root causes of Arab despair.
Mr. Powell recently introduced the "US-Middle East Partnership Initiative" which aims to spread democracy and political reforms in the Middle East, including the empowerment of women. The "three pillars" of this proposed US-Middle East bridge are education, business, and political and private-sector reforms. Although only $29 million is allocated for the first part of the initiative, "significant additional funding" was promised next year.
Powell's director of policy planning, Richard Haass, acknowledged that "successive US administrations, Republicans and Democrat[s] alike" had erred by not making "democratization a sufficient priority" with its Arab allies. He made it very clear that an important part of the solution lies in promoting democracy and providing economic and educational opportunities for the alienated youths who have served as a fertile recruiting ground for militant groups.
But what's alarming is the negative reception this progressive step has gotten in the ranks of pro-US Arab governments and civil society leaders. Arab officials criticized it for misplaced focus on reforming Arab politics at the expense of trying to resolve the dangerous Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Witness how the secular, pro-US regimes use the threat of the Arab street to maintain the authoritarian status quo: Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers warned the administration that interference in their internal affairs would be unacceptable and would generate a further public backlash against the US.
More disconcerting is that few Arab opinionmakers have taken the new ideas emanating from Washington seriously and most dismiss them as part of a propaganda ploy designed to distract attention from the coming war in Iraq. Moreover, they've derided the Powell initiative to help democratize the Arab world by suggesting that $29 million is a paltry sum - "Just six cents for every Arab!" opined a leading liberal Arab columnist.
Rejecting Powell's initiative and labeling it "suspicious," Egyptian opposition parties, along with human rights organizations, vowed "to organize public protests against it."
Why incite the populace against a US initiative, humble as it is, intended to nourish civil society? Why discredit democracy further in Muslim eyes by cynically linking it to mischievous US designs? Or is the goal to capitalize on widespread anti-American sentiments and garner popular support even at the expense of democracy?
Anti-Americanism in the Arab world has become a tool used by all political factions handicapping its politics and slowing any move toward democracy.
Clearly there is a general misunderstanding of the potential US role in furthering democracy among Arabs and Muslims as well as of the required conditions for it. On the one hand, Muslim liberals believe that the US possesses a magic wand that can easily open Muslim eyes to democratic paradise. On the other hand, Islamists and leftists more or less subscribe to a conspiracy theory holding Washington mainly responsible for the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Both positions indirectly imply that Arabs and Muslims aren't to blame for the dismal political and economic situation in which they live - that it's the fault of the US.
Neither the US nor any external power can do the work for Arabs and Muslims by exporting a well-tailored democratic model. Democracy can't be offered on a silver platter - nor can it be achieved without democrats.
Experience shows that liberal forces must struggle to expand the political space and thus earn a place among the community of democrats. Those genuine democrats, who tirelessly defend personal freedoms and liberties of all members of society, not just their own, are in short supply in Arab lands. The politics of exclusion and intolerance predominates.
The most the US can do is to serve as a facilitator, to show by deeds, not just words, its commitment to sustainable development and peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.
In particular, the Arab-Israeli dispute has exhausted meager local resources and impeded political evolution. To encourage genuine democratic transition, the US must exert unflinching pressure on its Arab allies to expand political participation and to show respect for the rule of law and the free assent of peoples.
This requires a convincing and consistent approach to human rights, missing in the US approach to the Middle East. For example, while the US demands the democratization of the Palestinian Authority, it maintains cozy relations with other Middle Eastern dictators.
American officials must recognize that there are limits to what they can do to structurally reform the Arab Middle East. Only Arabs and Muslims, with international assistance, can, and should democratically transform their own societies.
• Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of the forthcoming 'The Islamists and the West.'