- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Although the Bush administration decided in the immediate aftermath of September 11 that in order to secure the homeland the Middle East should be democratized, the forces that work against democratization are so challenging that the mission looked “impossible to accomplish” at first. Even today, after a bomb-free, successful election in Iraq, fears of failure and greater war in the region still dominate more than the possibility of victorious democracy. Alas, a successful election day is not enough to begin talking about the triumph of democracy in the Middle East. For at least a decade we will walk on eggshells before deciding whether the Middle East can become democratic. Yet, there is a plan. And although President Bush has acknowledged the mistakes in it, he has also assured that it will be corrected to ensure the success of democracy in the region.

When Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England stepped up to the podium to speak on the Bahraini National Day, I saw him as the face of the president’s willingness to correct the mistakes of his first term. Mr. England — who has spent his government career both as the secretary of the Navy and deputy secretary in the Department of Homeland Security and not as a neocon in a suit — is known to believe that strong state relations start first by building strong personal relations. He spoke on a day in which many factors involved in bringing change to the Middle East intersected. “Tonight we celebrate the independence and freedom of Bahrain,” he said. “Earlier today, the people of Iraq voted for their new government. I’m confident that in the coming years they too will find the peace, stability and success which the people of Bahrain enjoy.”

It was also the day after Bahrain became the third Arab country, after Jordan and Morocco, to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. Although the war in Iraq is a military solution, the Bush administration is trying to bolster it with economic and social elements. These free-trade agreements bring not only the military engagement, but also the U.S. civilian business engagement, to the Gulf region — and have multiplied U.S. interests there. Regardless of the size of these economies, they stand for an important policy decision.

First and foremost, so far, the bad news in Iraq benefits Iran. At last Friday’s prayer in Iran, former presidential candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said, “We see now that the United States is defeated. It keeps voicing absurdities such as [the claims of] Iran’s interference in Iraq, which is truly comical since the U.S. itself takes actions that are completely against diplomatic conventions and run counter to the U.N.”

Naturally, it raises the question of why Mr. England, Secretary of Navy, would speak on the Bahraini National Day when a free trade agreement is signed. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman could have taken the podium. But Bahrain is a small island not far from Iran, and the majority of its almost 700,000 people are Shi’ite. Bahrain could be the next stop for an Iran looking to extend its influence. But America’s increasing presence in the region is proof that the United States is determined to fight the Iranian regime — not only to prevent its extension, but also to change it. That will happen through a combination of military and economic efforts, via these free-trade agreements.

Iran presents a huge challenge. There is the standoff between it and the United States, because of the danger of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, and because Iran supports “terrorism” and unacceptable radical Islamic rules as state policy. When Mr. England said, “The United States is grateful to Bahrain for being such a strong partner for peace and a gracious host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet,” he was talking about how the Fifth Fleet’s presence protects U.S. interests in the region.

The United States is increasing its presence in the Gulf, and the White House seems determined to bring change. But if there weren’t a regime change in Iraq, could anyone say with confidence that we’d be talking about democracy in the Middle East? Could anything short of removal of Saddam Hussein have pushed it? Postwar failures are a whole different story. But free-trade agreements in the region and the Greater Middle East and Northern Africa Initiatives are proof that the United States is looking to use means other than military action to change the politics of the Middle East.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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