Reality intrudes on US vision for Mideast

Arab hostility to Iraq war and Bush's support of Sharon raises doubts about broader democratic reforms in region.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice says that if there's one thing she sees President Bush become passionate about, it is reform in the Middle East. For the president, political and economic progress in a vast region of Arab and Muslim population he calls the "greater Middle East" is one of the keys to winning the war on terror.

But just weeks before the Bush administration plans to roll out its greater Middle East initiative at a series of international summits, the plan is in trouble.

Three factors - worse-than-expected violence in Iraq, the president's surprise alignment last week with Israeli leader Ariel Sharon on West Bank settlements and other sensitive issues, and the continuing deterioration of America's image among Arabs - have thrown the plan off and punctured enthusiasm for pursuing it.

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For many experts and foreign diplomats involved in the Middle East - and even some US officials skeptical of what they see as the plan's we-know-what-you-need tone - it has become the incredible shrinking Mideast vision. "We've had so many setbacks from so many different directions to what were some fairly radical projects that the prudent response might be to file this initiative in the wastebasket or at least scale it back - and in fact we're seeing some signs of that," says Michael Hudson, an expert at Georgetown University here.

"The rhetoric is still there," adds a European diplomat in Washington, referring to continued administration talk of Middle East democratization. "But on the underlying levels where policy is made, the sentiment is a lot less enthusiastic than it was just some weeks back."

The initiative is still expected to provide the theme for the G-8 summit the White House is hosting in June, and to figure in NATO and US-European Union conclaves the same month. Diplomatic sources say the White House is even considering inviting Arab representatives to the G-8 summit to jump-start the plan. But in the current atmosphere, it might be difficult to get any leaders to attend. "After the most recent developments on the ground, America's credibility is so damaged and there is such hatred that it becomes impossible for the Arab people to accept their leaders considering such an initiative," says an Arab diplomat here.

The US has its hands full with Iraq in ways it hadn't anticipated. Hostility to the US in the region is so intense that the administration is finding that anything marked "made in USA," such as the reform plan, is not well received.

The animosity has been exacerbated by recent events in Iraq - particularly the violence in Fallujah and the standoff with radical Shiites in Najaf. But most devastating to US's image among Arabs was Bush's public acceptance of "realities on the ground" that he said meant some Israeli settlements would remain forever in the West Bank, and that the "right of return" of thousands of Palestinian refugees to lands they lost in Israel was no longer realistic.

Brusqueness from moderate Arabs

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met with Bush in Texas earlier this month, told the French newspaper Le Monde that "there exists today a hatred [of America] never equaled in the region." And Jordan's King Abdullah, already in the US, abruptly cancelled a scheduled visit to the White House last week.

For Arabs, the settlement and return issues were the last vestige of daylight between American and Israeli policies. That Bush's words were followed up by an uptick in Israel's campaign of targeted killings against Palestinian leaders it deems terrorists strengthened the association. "The heightened violence by the Sharon government runs together with the violence in Iraq in the Arab mind - most Arabs see Fallujah becoming an iconic part of a broader resistance," says Mr. Hudson.

Losing credibility as a mediator

The immediate result is a blow to Mideast reforms, both because would-be promoters from outside are discredited, and because internal reforms, increasingly associated with the West, are suspect. "Bush will probably never again be seen by the Arabs as a credible mediator of peace, having so fully identified with the Sharon position," says Edward Walker, a former State Department official and now president of the Middle East Institute. "Countries in the region will be hard-pressed to cooperate with the administration on questions like reform, Iraq, and even terrorism as their populations react to their perception of this one-sided US position."

At the same time, pro-modernization Arabs are telling American contacts that domestic reform efforts are being hurt by an association with pressures from the US for change. Recent events have also cooled European enthusiasm for working with the US on Mideast reform - just as the US is acknowledging it needs more partners in Iraq and in the broader region. Even Bush's stalwart ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has expressed frustration at the US drawing closer to Israel, while Europeans worry that the poor US image in the region could tarnish the work the EU has done in encouraging Arab reforms.

"The Europeans will have greater difficulty working with the Americans as they did before, when they all wanted the Americans in the driver's seat because that was the way progress in the region has been made," says the European official in Washington. "The problem is they [the Americans] just drove off in a certain direction, and we were not cautious enough."

Scaling back the vision?

On the other hand, the Europeans are conjecturing that what they see as the "Iraq mess" will have a humbling impact on US aims, and may lead to a more realistic approach to working with the Middle East. "The very deep troubles in Iraq have not only dampened the enthusiasm for big accomplishments there, but the situation has also led to a bigger gap between the euphoric [camp] and the ... realists, such as the State Department," the official says.

Given that State will take over authority in Iraq from the Pentagon on June 30 - and thus from the civilian officials who have been among the most enthusiastic about Mideast reform - is also seen as positive by some foreign officials. Still, a new caution towards the US on Mideast affairs is reflected in the role Secretary of State Colin Powell, once the great hope of foreign leaders, is seen to play these days. "Powell really is seen now as the tragic figure in all this," says the European official.

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