Bush Sets New Course in the Mideast; Analysts Praise Directive on Democratization, but Some Wonder If Action Will Follow

Article excerpt

On Nov. 6, President Bush delivered a foreign policy speech in which he pledged the United States to the advancement of democracy in the Middle East and repudiated "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East."

The speech delivered at the 20th anniversary of the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy represented at least rhetorically a major departure from U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a policy that historically had stability as its keystone rather than commitment to human rights or democracy. The strategy, said Bush, has not served the long-term interests of the United States because "stability cannot be purchased at the price of liberty."

Behind the News

Mideast scholars said the speech signaled a major formal change of U.S. policy in the region but added it remains to be seen whether the speech will be backed up by action. It should be viewed, they said, within the context of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"We need to understand that the president's speech is part and parcel of a major campaign on the part of the White House in order to respond to domestic criticisms about America's strategy in Iraq," said Fawaz Gerges, the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? "The speech was informed by America's challenges in Iraq itself."

William B. Quandt, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, called the decision to go into Iraq a watershed moment for U.S. policy in the Mideast. Quandt was a member of the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations who helped negotiate the Camp David peace agreement reached under Carter. Bush's speech, he said, is "part of the refocusing of U.S. policy in the Middle East [to] make this turn out for the best."

"The problem I have with the speech is whether it is really intended to reflect a change of policy in the region or is intended to make Americans feel good about what we are doing in Iraq--that is, to give a positive vision for what lies ahead for Iraq and the rest of the region," said Quandt.

"The missing ingredient in the speech--and we don't know yet about the policy to come out of it--is will there really be any carrots and sticks attached to it? Will our relationship with Egypt change? Will our relationship with Saudi Arabia change or is this just a way of having a rhetorical club to beat Syria and Iran with?"

Quandt said Egypt, a long-standing U.S. ally valued both for its stability and its willingness to make peace with Israel, will be a test case of whether the United States is serious about democratization.

"If we don't try to encourage Egypt in the direction of greater democracy, then a lot of people are going to look at it and say nothing has changed. This is just 'feel good' stuff," Quandt said.

That is, in fact, the perception of most Middle Easterners, said Ian Lustick, a professor or political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant on the Middle East to four presidential administrations.

"President Bush never mentioned Israel in his talk. From the point of view of most of his listeners, this is proof positive that it's not a serious speech. It's a vision cooked up to justify what some in the administration want to do in Iraq. That is the reality of what Middle Easterners think."

Lustick said it was striking that Bush's speech cast democratization as the main concern of U.S. foreign policy. "It's hard not to notice that WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was not even mentioned in the speech. This is a virtual transformation in the justification for the war, taking it from a minor theme to the major objective. The fact is, as it's heard in the Middle East, this is not really a change because this is more of the United States saying one thing and doing another. …