US dials back the volume on 'democracy'

Bush's public pronouncements on Islamic democratization take on a softer tone, as his recent trip to Pakistan showed.

President Bush has begun to soften his tone on the urgency of democratizing Muslim countries, lately choosing more cautious words that some experts say are a better match with his administration's modest political goals for countries ranging from Morocco to Pakistan.

The change so far is subtle. But the rise to power of Hamas, the radical Islamist group, through US-backed elections in the Palestinian territories and the difficulty of implanting democratic governance in Iraq are prompting Mr. Bush to soft-pedal his pronouncements.

The cautious approach is likely to continue at least until the administration sorts out how to respond to the new realities, experts say - leaving the Middle East peace process and other pressing regional matters hanging in the balance.

"A debate is raging within the administration. They are taking a second look at the entire process of exerting pressure on authoritarian rulers in the Middle East," says Fawaz Gerges, a foreign policy expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "There is no certainty over what to do, but we are hearing a rhetoric that is less intensive and more nuanced than just a few weeks ago."

What some observers call the administration's "crusade for dramatic change" is being supplanted by more tempered language, seen in officials' references to long-term goals of democracy's bloom and in initiatives that promote reforms without upsetting stability in the Muslim world.

Moderation from Bush and Rice

The adjustment was evident last weekend in Pakistan, where Bush spoke merely of a "hope" for democracy. He also skirted pro-democracy opposition leaders that some reform advocates had encouraged him to meet.

It was also on display when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled recently to Egypt. There, she referred to certain "setbacks" to political openness in Egypt, but did not directly call President Hosni Mubarak's government on the carpet.

"Middle East rulers are delighted at the prospect of a less demanding stance from the American government," says Mr. Gerges, noting that Secretary Rice did not publicly upbraid the Egyptian government for putting off local elections for two years.

Some rulers in the Islamic world may be breathing sighs of relief, but experts say that what may be happening with US government circles is a dovetailing of rhetoric and action.

"The policy of the Bush administration concerning democracy-building always proceeded along two tracks, with rhetoric that was somewhat far-reaching accompanied by the second level of actual diplomatic contacts with Arab countries, which have been very cautious," says Marina Ottaway, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Citing the Middle East Partnership Initiative - Bush's 2002 program that focuses on areas such as education, women's rights, entrepreneurship, and democracy-building - she notes that such initiatives will not "shake the boat in any country very much."

As for administration rhetoric, the most noticeable change is that concerning Iraq, says Ms. Ottaway. "Remember, it was once that we were going to turn it into a democracy, but when was the last time we heard that?" She adds, "Now the focus is on when their military is in a position to take over for the US military. That's where we see the most dramatic change in rhetoric."

The question of rhetoric is crucial, says Ottaway, because it is a factor in the "difficult situation" the US now finds itself in across the region. Its "exaggerated" words left the US in a bind between those who feared America was going to impose too much - even by force, as in Iraq - and those democrats who now feel disappointed to "find they are living with the same regime," she says.

Not forgotten: the word 'crusade'

Democratic change in the Middle East has been slowed by the close association of American efforts with Bush ideology, say some democracy-building specialists who work in the region.

"People now see this as an American crusade, with all the unfortunate connotations that word has in the Muslim world," says Raymond Shonholtz, president of Partners for Democratic Change, a San Francisco-based organization that works with groups worldwide for better governance.

As a result, he says, and especially in the Middle East, American efforts are now saddled with "a very political orientation that is not terribly advantageous to the concrete development of democracy."

While acknowledging the US has "no easy answers," Mr. Shonholtz says it should adopt a long-term vision of political change - and employ "less strident" rhetoric reflecting that position. He cites the political transformation of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland as an example that might be looked to as the US deals with the rise of Hamas.

In a revised Bush administration approach to democratization in Muslim nations, an essential element must be a better understanding of Islamist movements and a willingness to work more with the moderates among them, experts say.

"We need to talk more to all these Islamists who are not the violent extremists," says Ottaway. Islamist moderates have been "in the ascendency" in many countries, she says, but a botched US approach to the Hamas puzzle could set back reformists and stoke the fires of Islamist hardliners for years.

The answer is not to pull the rug out from under democratization in light of unexpected turns, says Sarah Lawrence's Mr. Gerges, but rather to press ahead on commitment to long-term change.

"Initially we are going to see the Islamists make some major gains - from Jordan to Morocco and Algeria and elsewhere - but they will do less well in elections down the road once Muslim voters see them in these offices," he says. "The only way to deflate the aura of the Islamists is to show the populations what abilities they have, and that is the process the US must stick by, even though it will take awhile."

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