- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan — Arabs and their governments view the U.S. initiative to promote democracy in the greater Middle East with suspicion, and some see it as part of American efforts to colonize the Arab world.

Washington’s Greater Middle East Initiative, expected to be revealed by President Bush at this year’s Group of Eight summit in June, would call for Arab governments to adopt major political and economic reforms, and improve human rights. In return, the United States would offer various rewards, including accession talks to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Arab analysts agree that major political and human rights reforms are necessary, and concede that calls for change from within the Arab world have been ignored for decades. They said, however, that though the people want democratically elected governments, they view the U.S. plan as an attempt by the United States to enlarge its control over the Middle East.

Arab activists contend that the United States does not want real democracy with elected leaderships, adding the first victim of a true democracy would be the Bush administration. Many believe the United States is imposing its view of what reforms should look like.

There is already widespread anti-Americanism in the region because of Washington’s support for Israel and its occupation of Iraq, and many view the United States as a colonial power. Mr. Bush’s Middle East reforms are likely to be unwelcome.

Arab leaders — in charge of undemocratic regimes that have for years suppressed political and civil freedoms — fear the U.S. initiative will mean an end to their power. Mr. Bush’s plan is said to contain penalties for governments that don’t fall into line.

Ever since the American president mentioned democracy in the “greater Middle East” in his State of the Union address in January, Arab officials have said Western-style democracy will not work in their countries.

Critics say this is a justification to maintain the status quo. But Arab officials say democratic reforms “must come gradually from within each country, for traditional and cultural considerations.”

One Jordanian official in Amman told UPI on the condition of anonymity that the U.S. initiative could act as an “alarm” for Arab leaders to hurry and implement their own reforms.

Jordan, a U.S. ally that is regarded as “more democratic” than other Arab countries, is not as concerned with the doubts raised in the rest of the region. Amman is a non-NATO strategic ally of Washington and has established a free-trade agreement with the United States as a reward for its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. It has also joined the WTO.

Analysts in Amman, however, say the U.S. plan is a non-starter as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict — especially the Palestinian issue — remains unresolved.

The “Americans are deceiving themselves to think they can bring about democratic reforms in the region without first proving to be honest brokers in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Jordanian Center for Strategic Studies.

He said that unless the Bush administration took a balanced approach in the conflict with Israel, and pushed the latter to resolve the Palestinian issue, “anything the Americans do will be viewed with suspicion.”

Mr. Hamarneh said Arabs would see the initiative as part of an “American agenda” if Washington did not withdraw from Iraq and return sovereignty to its people.

He noted that a poll that his center conducted in Jordan last year showed that only 8 percent of the sampled population believed the United States is serious about bringing democracy to the region.

Mr. Hamarneh insisted that if the Palestinian and Iraqi issues are not resolved, “nothing [the Americans] intend to do in the region will work.”

“However, if they succeed …, anything they propose could become more acceptable on the popular and government levels,” he said.

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