US-Muslim relations: hard choices ahead

American leaders will have to balance concerns about regional stability with pressure for reforms.

For George W. Bush, the defining issue of this campaign is the war on terror. For John Kerry, the most important foreign-policy issue is nuclear nonproliferation and access to weapons of mass destruction.

In both cases, these are issues closely linked to events and developments in a broad crescent of Islamic countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. It means that whoever wins the presidency, America's relations with the Muslim world are going to sit high on the agenda.

The Bush administration receives good marks from many officials and experts both in the United States and overseas for responding to the events of Sept. 11 with stepped-up attention to Arab and other Muslim countries.

But an administration carrying either candidate's surname will have to address a growing dilemma, analysts say: between nurturing longstanding ties to calcifying regimes, and rocking those relationships in the interest of hitting at the region's deepening political and economic challenges.

"Whoever wins and sets out to improve long-term prospects for answering these top priorities will face this basic dilemma of how to balance our different interests in the Middle East," says Amy Hawthorne, a specialist in Arab democratization at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

It's a choice that has sharpened, she says, "between preserving relations with regimes that are often part of the problem, and promoting democratic reforms, economic openings, and educational opportunity that are part of the answer, but which could also unsettle those regimes."

The overriding theme of the relationship between the US and Muslim world over coming years may thus be the friction between stability interests - as a short-term tool for addressing terrorism - and reform as a more strategic response to Islamic extremism's deeper causes. But that theme is likely to play out through a list of high-interest and often highly emotional issues.

At the top of that list are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq, which will continue to complicate any administration's relations with the Muslim world, analysts say. "There is an urge to democratize, liberalize, and develop. But unfortunately as long as there is this simultaneity between the US administration's pressing for action in these areas and the perception of America favoring the Israel of Ariel Sharon and managing growing chaos in Iraq, the suspicions about America's motives will only strengthen," says Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Global South at American University in Washington.

As an example, Mr. Maksoud points to Jordan, which he notes benefits from a free-trade agreement with the US and close ties between Jordan's King Abdullah and President Bush. Still, he says, the "hemorrhaging" in support for the US among Arab and Muslim publics has narrowed America's field of action and dampened enthusiasm for the kinds of reforms the US is promoting.

The dilemmas that the US faces between supporting other key Muslim leaders and fostering liberalizing reforms is just as stark - with Pakistan standing out as a prime example.

"Pakistan will remain a key state," while a priority of any administration will be "ensuring that [President Pervez] Musharraf continues to cooperate on terrorism and Al Qaeda," says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington. "Unfortunately, in my view [that] will continue to eclipse such crucial issues as institutional and political reform."

Indeed, the next US administration will have to decide whether to prod General Musharraf (who has yet to give up his military uniform as promised) toward real political reforms, experts say, while promoting progress in key areas like education.

At the same time, Pakistan is likely to focus the debate over how far the US should go with economic carrots as a component of the war on terror. So far, the Bush administration has rebuffed Pakistani requests for more favorable trade rules to bolster its textile industry, but pressure in that arena won't go away.

Even with some attention to such issues, however, the underlying expectation throughout the Muslim world is that US relations will continue to be driven by the war on terror, some experts say. "People are talking about a structural process where there is more emphasis on the war on terror and less sensitivity to Arab and Muslim concerns," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "The resulting dominant sentiment is, 'Don't count on any dramatic changes' " out of Washington.

Mr. Gerges, who traveled extensively in the region this summer, says he heard concerns about the "new Jihadists" only loosely associated with Al Qaeda, if at all, but still motivated by US actions. "That's at the top of people's list," he says.

Others acknowledge that America's low standing among the region's general population, as evidenced by a series of recent public-opinion surveys, means that US motives are viewed as suspect, making its road ahead more arduous. To begin to alter those perceptions, the US should focus on closer working relations with the blossoming civil societies in Muslim countries, experts say.

They add that instead of setting out to improve America's image, as much of US public diplomacy has emphasized since Sept. 11, the better goal may be to simply facilitate reform - with a better US image as a long-term byproduct. "We're going to have to close the gap between what we give in terms of support to government ... and [what we give] to these new institutions" in civil society, says Scott Lasensky, Middle East specialist at USIP. "We're going to have to do it in a way that leaves the return address blurred."

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