Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The White House, buoyed by the fall of Lebanon’s pro-Syria government and other signs of democratization throughout the Middle East, yesterday proclaimed that “democracy and freedom are on the march.”

Although careful not to gloat over encouraging developments that still could turn sour, administration officials were heartened by the speed with which President Bush’s foreign policy of introducing liberty to the Middle East appears to be bearing fruit.

“You’re seeing across the world, most notably in the Middle East, that democracy and freedom are on the march,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “There is a commitment to moving forward on democratic reforms.”

Middle East analyst Marc Ginsberg, who was an ambassador to Morocco during the Clinton administration, said Mr. Bush “deserves credit” for aggressively trying to spread freedom in the region. He said the catalyst for reform was Iraq, which held its first free elections on Jan. 30.

“That vote had enormous emotional ramifications for the people in that region, who were really taken aback by what they saw,” he said. “Every Arab newspaper that I’m reading now uses the phrase: ‘Why there and not here?’”

Dennis Ross, who was a Middle East envoy under the first President Bush and President Clinton, said the tide has begun to turn in the region.

“Something profound’s going on right now, and what it really is, more than anything else, is a loss of fear,” he said. “Every Arab regime has ruled basically through coercion and intimidation, and suddenly the fear factor is eroding.”

He added: “It’s not just regional. I think that what has influenced the Lebanese in particular was also the Orange Revolution in Kiev. The notion that if you stand together, you can reverse fraud, you can force those who have always oppressed you to, in fact, withdraw.”

Although Mr. Bush has described his push for democratization of the Middle East as a strategy that might take 50 years or more to fully implement, his aides noted that it already is paying short-term dividends.

• Lebanon’s pro-Syria government abruptly resigned yesterday amid pro-democracy demonstrations in Beirut. The move came one week after Mr. Bush gave a speech in Brussels declaring that “the Lebanese people have the right to be free.”

• Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Saturday that Egypt will hold its first direct, multiparty presidential elections. Mr. Bush, in his Brussels speech, called on Egypt to “show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”

• Iraq announced this weekend that Syria has captured Saddam Hussein’s half brother, a leader of Iraq’s insurgency, and turned him over to Baghdad with 29 other fugitives. The announcement came in the wake of Mr. Bush’s admonition in Brussels that “the Syrian regime must take stronger action to stop those who support violence and subversion in Iraq.”

While these developments transpired within the past week, the stage for democratization was set earlier by the toppling of despotic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, elections have been held in the Palestinian territories and, on a limited basis, in Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, a frequent critic of the United States, credited Mr. Bush for the recent trend toward democratization.

“It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq,” he told columnist David Ignatius of The Washington Post last week. “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”

He added: “The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

Seeking to capitalize on this momentum, Mr. Bush will welcome Lebanese reformer Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, a Maronite cardinal, to the White House on March 16. The visit was announced by Mr. McClellan just hours after Lebanon’s government resigned. The spokesman called Cardinal Sfeir “an important voice for Lebanese independence, freedom and democracy.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Bush’s overarching foreign policy objective — securing the United States by democratizing the Middle East — is showing signs of promise.

“It’s definitely a good week for democracy in the Middle East,” he said. “You have to assume Mr. Bush’s words had at least something to do with that.”

But he cautioned against “counting our chickens before they’ve hatched,” especially in Egypt.

“It may all be part of a con game where Mubarak has realized that the United States is demanding reform, so he’s going to have to at least give the appearance of reform,” he said. “He may still figure out a way to pull the strings and maintain his hold on power.”

He added: “Still, the fact that he felt obliged to do something so quickly is notable and at least somewhat surprising.”

Mr. Ginsberg added: “I don’t believe for one moment in the end that Mubarak is going to position anyone to be able to legitimately challenge him. This is all about positioning his son to be able to take over for him.”

Mr. Ross said Mr. Mubarak is “trying to get out in front of” Mr. Bush’s demand for reforms, but that the Egyptian and other Middle East leaders might embrace reforms that are “as cosmetic as possible.”

White House officials pointed out that some regimes will move more swiftly than others toward democratization and insisted that the overall trend is in the right direction. Mr. Bush said as much in his Brussels speech.

“Across the Middle East — from the Palestinian territories, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Iran — I believe that the advance of freedom within nations will build the peace among nations,” he said. “We support the spread of democracy in the Middle East — because freedom leads to peace.”

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