White House readies a push for Middle East reforms

At upcoming meetings, the US will advocate building on local advancements such as judicial reforms in Bahrain.

The Bush administration will use a series of international meetings to launch its plan for political and economic reform in the Middle East - and by so doing try to repair relations with traditional allies that were bruised in the run-up to the Iraq war.

At June summits with the European Union and NATO, as well as a G-8 meeting that the United States will host in Florida, the US will lay out a vision that seeks to build on democratic and economic-development advances in the region. The US will also recruit recently estranged allies as France and Germany to join in.

The initiative's aims are twofold: to demonstrate, despite the unanticipated complications in Iraq, what the administration said would be the transformative impact of ridding the region of a threatening dictatorship; and to answer critics who say the war only distracted the US from addressing the deeper terrorism-breeding problems of the Middle East.

The proposal is being touted to Washington's Western allies as addressing the needs of a "wider" or "greater" Middle East, and thus to include the broader Muslim world, including Iran and South Asia.

But even some experts who praise parts of the plan note that it will be going forth without the "Exhibit A" that Iraq was supposed to provide under the prewar vision of some Bush administration policymakers.

"Initially, Iraq was going to be the poster child for proper Middle East governance, but that's not the way things have played out," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist who recently left the State Department policy planning staff for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

But in an unexpected way, the initiative appears all the more urgent, since Iraq remains another example of the kind of Middle East instability the plan seeks to address. "In many ways, this is security driven," Mr. Alterman says.

Rather than starting with a grandiose plan that might be construed as more interference from a power that is poorly viewed in the region at the moment, the US seeks to build on reforms already advancing in some countries in the hopes of triggering additional progress.

Words from the State Dept.

The idea is to "look in the region where there are people seeking reform, [where] there are people trying to establish the rule of law [and] change their economies ... and then to see what programs and capabilities from the outside can be used to support that," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said recently.

Administration officials are trumpeting the US free-trade agreement with Jordan, judicial reforms in Bahrain, and family-law reforms in Morocco that boost the rights of women as the kinds of locally grown developments they will seek to encourage.

European officials in Washington say the administration has been briefing them and visiting leaders about the plan over recent weeks.

"It's clear this idea of promoting reform in the wider Middle East will be the topic of the G-8 meeting," says one European diplomat.

Talking about a sort of division of labor, the diplomat says the idea "seems to be that the Americans would work with, say, the Egyptians to do this or that, while not being on such good terms with Syria or Iran; that's where the Europeans come in."

While noting a flurry of meetings between American and European leaders in conjunction with the initiative - for example German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for many months the target of Bush disdain, has been invited to the White House later this week - the diplomat played down the fence-mending aspects of the American proposal.

"Our feeling is that it's not so much about repairing the relationship as it is the Americans deciding there are these much larger challenges that are favored by cooperating. They realize they need friends and allies to do what they want to do," the diplomat adds, "so they need to turn back to them."

The Bush proposal seeks to get back the initiative at a time when Arab countries see the US as doing nothing, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pursues a strategy of unilateral action. The White House wants to have something to say to regional players in the context of some upcoming meetings, experts say - at Mr. Sharon's White House visit this week and when the Arab League meets next month.

Looking for signals

For their part, Arab leaders will be watching how Washington responds to the recent Israeli actions. Arab officials may want to see how much pressure the White House is willing to put on Israel before these leaders take the kind of steps that Americans may be expecting of them.

While some officials in the region may receive the plan skeptically, other observers voice concerns that any programs that fund reformers could have the undesired effect of further tarnishing those forces in their people's eyes.

"My concern is that rushing in with resources to the usual suspects who are lovely, empowering, English-speaking, all the things we want them to be, will make them look more like agents of the the US," CSIS's Alterman says. "And that might only isolate those kind of reform-minded forces further from the people."

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