US 'Lukewarm' on Arab Democracy Administration Sees Long-Term Instability in Reforms; Regional Experts Say Climate Is Right. RESTRUCTURING THE MIDDLE EAST

Article excerpt

DAVID MACK, head of the US State Department's Iran-Iraq desk, sat on the dais at a recent meeting of Iraqi groups opposed to President Saddam Hussein.

When he stood to speak, Mr. Mack reiterated Washington's reluctance to back democracy in Baghdad.

The United States, he said, is not "calling for popular rebellion" against Saddam. Nor does it "favor one faction over another." Meetings with the Iraqi opposition, he explained, are "to further mutual understanding."

The Bush administration's postwar policy, aimed at toppling Saddam but not necessarily in favor of a democratic alternative, has become yet another point of contention in a debate here over whether Washington should commit itself to fostering democracy in the Middle East.

Some analysts say that in general the US is lukewarm if not unenthusiastic about democraticization in the Arab world. They cite not only Iraq, but US policy in Kuwait in the postwar period and the Bush administration's decision not to confront Emir Jabir al-Sabah over the issue of early elections. A climate for reforms?

The administration maintains that the US did not go to war in the Persian Gulf to bring democracy to Kuwait; some in the administration contend the Arab world is not ready for democracy.

"You don't have a polity that's ready out there," says one US official.

Academics specializing in the Middle East actively disagree.

In June, at a conference organized at Princeton, Middle East experts agreed that democracy in the region is possible.

"There are pro-democracy movements and we ought to support them," says Jill Crystal, a specialist on Kuwait at the University of Michigan who attended the conference.

The US has not been an enthusiastic advocate of democracy in the third world in general, academics point out. But State Department officials trace Washington's particular lack of enthusiasm for democracy in the Middle East back to the late 1970s, when the US coaxed the Shah of Iran to stop human rights abuses and open up the political process. In the end, Iran was consumed by an Islamic revolution that to this day is still unfriendly to the US. Legacy of the Shah's fall

"What we didn't realize is that the Shah was messing with the social fabric and religious tradition and it unraveled. It fell apart," says the US official.

Since then, the official maintains, the US is reluctant to encourage democracy in the Middle East for fear of new unravelings.

"You don't mind encouraging your enemies, like the Soviet Union, to democratize," he notes, "but you are loath to encourage your friends to do something that might produce disorder."

For a brief period after the Gulf war, those fears abated, especially regarding Kuwait, and the administration strongly advocated early elections there. But soon it backed off. When the Kuwaiti government announced elections for October 1992, the Bush administration acceded.

Subsequently, the Washington Post reported that Saudia Arabia had asked the US to drop the issue of democratization in Kuwait for fear the movement would spill into its own kingdom. …