More US Honey in Middle East

The US invasion of Iraq may have struck fear among Middle East autocrats but President Bush now appears to be favoring honey-sweet incentives as he tries to reform the region away from its terrorist-nurturing ways.

Last week, for instance, he made a U-turn from trying to punish Iran for its apparent nuclear-weapons program and instead dangled membership in the World Trade Organization as a lure for Tehran to give up its dangerous quest. Without the WTO's market and investment opportunities, Iran's clerics won't be able to create enough jobs for the country's mass of restless, idle youth.

Whether this approach will work remains to be seen. Iran's clerics, currently flush with oil revenues, blew it off. Bush might have taken this step simply to gain credibility in Europe to allow him to win UN economic sanctions against Iran if it again cheats on nuclear agreements. And the US may be looking for Iran's help in Iraq and Lebanon as those two nations move toward a free democracy. The US military, too, is so stretched in Iraq that it carries little immediate threat in the region.

Of various Bush tactics in his "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," incentives seem to be best for now. Two other tactics - promoting US values and aiding private groups in pushing political liberalization - aren't working well. US abuses of Iraqi prisoners and its support for Israel's West Bank policies have undercut those moves.

An incentives approach has worked for the European Union in nudging Turkey to reform its democracy and civil liberties in order to join the EU. And both Europe and the US are offering economic carrots to the Palestinians as a way to get Hamas to stop attacks on Israelis. Egypt, too, has been nudged with economic pressures to open up its presidential elections. Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction in part to get out from under economic sanctions.

The US still has enormous clout in the Middle East - if it exercises it wisely. Dismantling the institutions of dictatorship isn't easy, though. The vinegar of punishment can work only so far. The honey of incentives may now prove a better choice.

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