US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with more than 20 Arab foreign ministers Monday at a forum intended to promote democracy in the region, but her initiatives were overshadowed by a new road block in Middle East peace efforts.
Grilled by reporters at a Monday night press conference with Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri, Secretary Clinton held fast to her support this weekend for an Israeli proposal to restrain settlement growth in the West Bank, which she called "unprecedented."
But Palestinians, whose President Mahmoud Abbas Clinton met in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, are demanding a more comprehensive freeze in settlement activity as a precondition for reentering peace talks. Arab League President Amr Moussa expressed Arab leaders' deep disappointment over what they perceive as US backpedaling on earlier demands for a complete settlement freeze.
"The problem is the immunity given to Israel, a country outside the scope of international law. This kind of immunity is unprecedented," Mr. Moussa told the Monitor on Monday. "We have to stop treating Israel as a superstate over international treaties."
A Moroccan diplomat called this new road block in the Middle East peace process a "handicap" for talks on democratic reform at the two-day Forum for the Future, as it's known. The annual meeting, established by the Group of 8 (G-8) industrialized countries in 2004 to support inclusive dialogue between the West and the Islamic world, brings together foreign ministers from the G-8 and from the broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA).
Clinton lauds Morocco's example
Tuesday's talks in Marrakesh are expected to spotlight democratization initiatives in the BMENA region, with a focus on facilitating dialogue between governments and civil society. According to American officials, a lack of democracy in the Middle Eas and North Africa poses a major threat to global security and stability.
Clinton kicked off the day with opening remarks that held up Morocco as an example for positive reform in the region. She recalled a visit to the country 10 years earlier, when she met an illiterate father who had supported his daughter's aspirations of becoming a doctor. She also spoke of "devout women" who had gone on to become human rights advocates.
"Examples like these remind us there (is) much in Morocco's experience that we can look to to guide our efforts today," she said.
Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said on Monday that the Obama administration would use "principled engagement" to encourage regional governments to adopt democratic reforms – "both to provide security and at the same time to build democratic institutions that protect their own people." Posner said that change "occurs from within society" and is "very hard to impose from outside."
Hicham Houdaifa, a commentator with Moroccan magazine Le Journal that recently had its bank account frozen by Moroccan officials, says he was "disappointed" that Clinton did not address the issue of press freedom. In the lead-up to the forum in Morocco Reporters Without Borders sought to draw attention to a recent crackdown on the Kingdom's press, but was prevented from holding a press conference by Moroccan officials.
"What Hilary Clinton may not know is that we are a country of reforms, but we are doing little to implement them," says Mr. Houdaifa. "It was good to hear 'change comes from within,'" he said, adding that the "bad legacy" of the Bush administration's foreign policy had caused some Moroccan NGOs to refuse to accept American money.
Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Ma., says that the Obama administration shares Bush's commitment to democracy but is less "dogmatic" in its approach. "[Bush's] approach not only opened the administration to charges of hypocrisy, but led to mistrust that undercut American soft power."
Clinton headed to Cairo next
In Morocco on Tuesday, Clinton announced new aid programs designed to support development efforts in the Middle East. They included $76 million to stimulate economic growth in Yemen, one of the region's poorest countries and a focus of increasing concern as a potential haven for militants including Al Qaeda. She also offered $30 million for young Jordanians. In September, a Jordanian immigrant described by many back home as a troubled teen, was arrested by the FBI in Dallas and charged with attempting to bomb a Dallas skyscraper.
The initiatives were relatively modest, however, compared with the more than $3 trillion in US grants that Israel has enjoyed since 1985, according to a Congressional Research Service report (pdf). Egypt, with its strong limits on political opposition and the press, is also a major US aid recipient, with Congress budgeting $1.5 billion for the country in the 2008-09 fiscal year that ended last month.
US officials must tread cautiously in urging Arab allies like Morocco and Egypt to improve their human rights record, said Marina Ottaway, Middle East Program Director at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Human rights transgressions on the one hand ought to be pointed out, she said, but "without necessarily condemning these countries, because realistically, we need their cooperation, particularly Egypt's, on Israel and on negotiations between Hamas and Fatah."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced Monday night that Clinton would extend her Middle East tour, originally scheduled to end Tuesday, to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday in Cairo. Exactly five months before their planned visit, President Obama gave an historic speech to the Arab world in which he sought "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." He promised that "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."
r Material from Reuters was used in this report.