WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 (JTA) American Jewish leaders and democracy advocates are praising Bush administration plans to promote democracy in the Middle East. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the State Department will invest millions of dollars to promote democracy throughout the region, advocating reform and training political activists and journalists. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to detail the plans as early as next month. A State Department official laid out a four-pronged approach Wednesday utilizing $25 million in appropriated funds. The goals are economic reform and private sector development, education, promotion of civil society and respect for the rule of law. The overarching goal is to bring democratic values and leadership to many of the countries in the region. The Bush administration in recent months has spoken at length about the need for democracy in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, and the new effort is viewed as an attempt to make policy consistent for the entire region. “Post-Sept. 11, there was a feeling that we always had promoted democracy in the region but it needed to be taken to a new level,” the State Department official said. “There is criticism that we have given democracy lip service in the Middle East.” Officials note that the issue started gaining prominence at the White House in June, when President Bush spoke at the U.S. Military Academy. “In poverty, they struggle. In tyranny, they suffer,” he told the army cadets. “The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation, and their governments should listen to their hopes.” Despite State Department claims that Arab leaders will welcome the initiative, it seems probable that any effort to support democracy advocates in the Middle East will meet resistance in the largely authoritarian regimes. But sources say the focus of the effort is not on the heads of state but the Arab public. The program is seen as an effort to thwart off future threats from a surge of anti-Americanism in the Arab world and promote a more positive image of the United States. The program is believed to be spurred in part by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the view that anti-American sentiment is high on the Arab street, even as Arab governments support much of U.S. policy. Without fundamental changes, State Department officials say, the region could remain a hotbed of terrorist activity against American interests. With large and growing populations, weak economies and few civic and political freedoms, the Arab world will be a source of instability in decades to come unless steps are taken now, experts warn. The first tangible sign of the new policy was unveiled last week, when the Bush administration announced it would oppose additional foreign aid to Egypt to protest the conviction of Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights activist with American citizenship who writes about democratic values. While no new aid was being discussed, the shift in U.S. policy toward Egypt garnered international attention. As part of the reforms, the State Department is expected to review the $1 billion in foreign aid distributed to the Middle East each year. The democratization effort is expected to include all countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria, which the State Department defines as state sponsors of terrorism. A State Department official said the government will look at ways of executing its goals while circumventing those governments. More modest reforms also are being sought in Israel, the only democracy in the region. Among the plans for Israel are curriculum reform to promote Arab-Israeli reconciliation, at the same time as Arab neighbors consider accepting Israel’s right to exist, State Department officials said. Much of the new effort will be spearheaded by Elizabeth Cheney, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. Elizabeth Cheney joined the State Department this spring. Many are praising the new U.S. stance, but questions remain as to whether the policy shift will have an effect. “You’re not going to get democratization through the current system; you need regime change,” said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute. “The Saudi royals will not become the Queen of England.” Wurmser said it would take sustained pressure to achieve results, and she was unsure whether the Bush administration would make the effort. “I think we can achieve a goal of democratizing the systems by putting enough pressure to change or else,” she said. “Our friendship is worth something.” Pressure on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries would be a sharp change from the past year, when the Bush administration courted Arab support for its policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the larger war against terrorism. Administration officials frequently have welcomed Arab leaders to the White House and have, until last week, kept criticism of those countries’ domestic policies private. State Department officials say they expect that Arab governments to support the initiative, even though some may see the reforms as a threat to their leadership. “We feel it is an effort to transform their government and promote ideals in the best interest of their governments,” the State Department official said. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he believes the new policy comes from open questioning of the Bush administration as to why its strong support for democracy in other parts of the world has not been applied to the Middle East. The proposed reforms are “a long time coming,” Foxman said. “I think it needs to be gradual because if one dives into it impetuously, it can reverberate negatively.” He said he believes Jewish groups will support the efforts, without taking a leadership role.
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JTA Staff This article was posted by JTA staff.