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The Lesser Middle East Reform Initiative


The long awaited and gestated G-8 Greater Middle East Reform Initiative, which terrorized the regimes of the Middle East with fears of democratic reform, a fate worse than apostasy, has finally seen the light of day, with less than dramatic impact.

Middle East leaders had good reason to be alarmed. The policy broke with long standing mainstays of Washington Middle East diplomacy. The first was the infamous "He's an SOB, but he's our SOB" policy that allowed Washington to support and nurture dictators and repressive regimes around the world, as long as those regimes supported the US. Fuglencio Battista, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein are among the SOBs that the US was proud to call "ours" at one time. This policy was never meant to be morally justifiable, and with the end of the cold war, it is not even expedient.

The second holy cow that appeared to be on the way to the slaughter house was the mantra that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to solving all the problems of the Middle East. This was possibly first enunciated by US Assistant Secretary of State Harold H. Saunders in 1975 and eventually became a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East. As one astute commentator has pointed out recently, this doctrine may have a much longer history, and it is well worth re-examination.

When a draft of George Bush's initiative was first leaked to Al Hayat in February, it sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East, causing a postponement of the Arab summit and inspiring hopeful (or spine-chilling, depending on your point of view) calls for reform. Saudi rulers mutst've had nightmare visions of women drivers, male voters and even, heaven forfend, women voters in meaningful elections. Egypt and Syria might have been seriously considering how they could retrain the minions of people who routinely carry out the same tortures that horrified the world in Abu-Ghraib. Publicly, rulers did not say "no" outright to reform. The then-unpublished initiative was criticized by Egyptian and Saudi rulers because, it was said, reform could not be imposed from outside, and because, as they claimed there could be no reform in the Middle East without first solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nobody has every explained why Saudi Arabia can't hold free elections or give women driver's licences until Israel makes peace with the Palestinians, but the idea that Middle East reform is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian problem has since been repeated many times. Arab countries invited to the G-8 summit (except for Iraq) pointedly refused to attend.

By a strange coincidence, OPEC announced that it was cutting oil production quotas, though prices were already high. Partly as a result of that cut, prices went soaring over the $40 dollar a barrel mark, and the Dow Jones and Nasdaq indices headed south.

The panic of the Middle Eastern rulers may have been for naught. Even before it was announced, an astute observer noted somewhat euphemistically:

The new American draft responds to European concerns about the project and, in a bow to Arab criticisms, is rooted in indigenous Arab calls for reform.

The initiative is now called "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa." The length of the name may be in inverse proportion to the significance of the initiative. The major changes in the plan are incorporation of language about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a major retreat regarding reform. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the document states:

The resolution of long-lasting, often bitter, disputes, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an important element of progress in the region.

That might be a harmless truism. It implicitly contains the Saunders formula, since there is no mention of the larger Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Muslim conflict. The hidden assumption is that once the Palestinians and Israelis make peace, the various "refusal fronts" will quickly crumble. Does anyone really believe that, for example, Iran will give up its enmity to Israel and to "the Great Satan" if the Palestinians and Israelis conclude a peace treaty? Also, of course, it is not really related to the question of democratic reform.

The key provision however, is probably this one:

Each country is unique and their diversity should be respected. Our engagement must respond to local conditions and be based on local ownership.
Each society will reach its own conclusions about the pace and scope of change.

How can we interpret this statement? It is, to be sure, modified by the provision that:

Yet distinctiveness, important as it is, must not be exploited to prevent reform.

In a moment of intended or unintended candor, Aljazeera noted:

But in a nod to Arab and Muslim fears that it is merely a tool to impose western values on their traditional societies, the initiative repeatedly points out that no reforms are actually required [emphasis addied].

Here's how it could work: certain countries have reached the conclusion that "the pace and scope of change| appropriate for them, is that they will have free elections the day after Hell freezes over. That will be the pace of change. Yet this distinctivness will not prevent reform: the banking systems may be made a bit more transparent, and there may be a dialog such as the one in Saudi Arabia at present and the sort of forum that is also envisioned by the G-8 initiative. A Saudi Arabian commentator noted that Saudi minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi observed in Al-Watan recently, the National Dialogue forums are meant to train people in debating skills, not to recommend reforms.

Coincidentally, just about the time that the new draft of the initiative was released, OPEC announced a big boost in petroleum production, reducing oil prices below $40 a barrel again.

Of course, those who want to believe that the G8 initiative can still produce reform are free to believe. Anything is possible, right?

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000271.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

Maybe it's the other way around.Perhaps if there is reform in the Middle East THEN there would be more opportunity for the Arab/Isreali conflict to be settled.
The strange part is that ppl seem to believe that calling for reforms,freedom and democracy in the Middle East means Arabs become Americanized. Puppets of the United States. The Poles retained their culture. Ditto the Germans. Also the Japanese.
There is no reason because there is Middle East reform that Arabs cease to be Arab. To put it simply it matters not what nationality we are.We also have the same hopes,dreams and aspirations. I can't imagine that there isn't a single American,Arab or Isreali who doesn't want to take care of their families,live in relative peace and provide a good life for their children,grandchildren and future generations. All nationalities have this in common.
It's not much to ask.
As the Constitution of the United States puts it we are endowed by our Creator(God)with inalienable rights among those life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness.Anotherwords government doesn't give us those things which means it cannot take them away.The duty of government then is to protect those God given rights. It's our duty.
I know about US support in the past of certain regimes.Enough to drive you mad.However,it was always that thinking the lesser of 2 evils since there is no way on earth the United States controls events in the world. It's not the way most of us would like it to be and you throw your hands up in the air sometimes and live with what you have to thinking it could be worse. Of course,then it gets worse.
I think we have learned some hard lessons there.
To make a long story short it's not up to me to tell other governments how to run their internal affairs. However, we cannot see on this side of the world how the average person on the street feels about his/her everday life.
All we know here is how much the Arab world hates the United States and how much oil per day is being produced. We know nothing about the person on the street or their everyday lives. The next thing we hear is about the kidnappings or bombings so now we know something about the Middle East at last.Other than that there is no face put on the person on the street.
We are worlds away.
One final thought:If i were to try and explain what an "American" is I would put it simply. A Pole,An Italian,an Irishman,a Scot,British,French,Native American,African,Russian (you get the picture) .You see you can go to any country in the world and you cannot be that nationality. But when you come to America it doesn't matter what you are-you become an American.So to say someone is "Americanized" it puzzles me.To be an American is to be what you are.

Posted by boxerpaws@ma.rr.com @ 06/13/2004 06:08 AM CST

WHO ARE WE TRYING TO KID HERE?...This reform excercise is a colossal waste of time. Democratic reform simply can not be implemented from the top down in any country controlled by a non-representative government!!! This is the equivalent of asking leaders who risked everything...mastered the art of acquiring power through non-democratic means, to voluntarily implement an orderly change process that would give equal opportunity to their political opponents. Reality BITES!! Totalitarian leaders just don't do this kind of thing willingly. If pressured enough, these leaders, masters of political survival in a political change process that is dependent on violent overthrow, will simply learn how to play the game of appeasing leaders of more powerful and democratic countries without ever really allowing the installation of components essential to a working democracy.

Posted by bariboz @ 06/19/2004 04:15 AM CST

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