Premature euphoria over US-style Mideast democracy?

Amid the euphoria currently generated by moves toward democratic change in the Middle East, it is well to remember that expectations of the results may vary between Washington and the targeted countries of the region.

Bush administration policymakers, who declare democracy and freedom to be the keys to peace and reform in the region, view the opportunity to vote and elect leaders as a path to improve these people's daily lives, release them from oppressive rule, and forward the achievement of goals - including religious goals - often denied by their rulers.

The two sets of perceptions may not be incompatible, yet true democracy can be unpredictable. Skeptics who suggest that democracy cannot function in the largely Muslim Middle East are wrong, but that does not mean that entrenched regimes will willingly yield power or that elections will produce governments fully compatible with US expectations. Acceptable outcomes for the US would include advances in the position of women, broader recognition of Israel and support for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a renunciation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and a greater acceptance of the role of the US in the region.

It is probably too soon to tell how deep and lasting the current expressions of appreciation may be in Lebanon and elsewhere for Washington's pressures for democracy. The impediments to the full acceptance of America's role remain substantial.

Many of those in Middle Eastern countries who seek the ouster of autocratic regimes oppose such regimes precisely because they consider them too close to the US. Osama bin Laden's attacks on the Saudi regime are an extreme example.

It cannot be assumed that democratic regimes in the region would renounce all the policies of autocratic predecessors. A reformed Iran might still continue a nuclear program. Democratic Arab regimes, to appeal to the popular will, might be even less ready to compromise with Israel. Conservative Islamic groups, well financed and organized, could do well in elections, placing obstacles on such issues as the rule of civil law, equality for women, and rights of minorities.

Democratic change can also bring a welcome release from strict state controls. But such release can have unintended consequences. Crime and increased opium poppy production are already serious problems for the newly elected government in Kabul.

As political change takes place in the Middle East, it will do so under the harsh spotlight of international media attention - in Europe and the US and through a growing network of assertive regional television channels. US administrations will work to put the best face on developments, but less favorable pictures will inevitably emerge. Lobbyists for various factions, including those of entrenched regimes long friendly to the US, will be active in Congress. And among the public, pressures will mount for Washington to take action to protect what are seen as US vital interests: access to the region, the promotion of values, and the security of Israel.

But Washington's options in furthering democracy may be limited. Although encouraging freedom may have improved American standing, resentments and suspicions of America remain deep. The beliefs that Washington has an agenda of its own and seeks to manipulate events through a "hidden hand" will not quickly disappear. Overt American attempts to influence political trends and official rhetoric in support of parties and candidates could backfire. What will be important is the reestablishment of US credibility in the region so that Washington's voice will be influential on those issues that directly affect basic US interests.

Recognition of the problems that lie ahead should not discourage assistance through exchanges, nonprofit organizations, and diplomatic approaches. A realistic understanding of both the limitations and the opportunities of Middle East democracy should, however, minimize the possibilities of the surprises and disappointments that so often accompany US initiatives in this difficult region. Today's euphoria could be premature.

David D. Newsom is a former US ambassador to Libya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. His most recent book is 'The Imperial Mantle: The United States, Decolonization, and the Third World.'

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