Friday, April 09, 2004


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By William Fisher

The plan presented recently by the foreign policy dean of the US Senate, Republican Richard Lugar, represents a refreshing and thoughtful alternative to the Bush Administration’s Greater Middle East Initiative. The Bush plan has been found unacceptable by virtually all Arab governments, who see it as a neo-colonial attempt by the US to impose political reform from outside the region. Lugar’s plan addresses this concern by proposing that Middle East Arab states become full partners with the G-8 nations in a way that “allows the nations of the region to set their own priorities for the new millennium” – including helping to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict though a trusteeship managed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Lugar’s Greater Middle East Twenty First Century Trust would unite the G-8 countries (the US, Canada, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy) with wealthy donor countries in the Greater Middle East. Donors would “pool resources to deliver grants and would work together to define the funding criteria based, in part, on the high priority needs identified in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were written by Arab scholars. Vigorous two-way interaction between donors and recipients is vital: change cannot be imposed from the outside.”

To address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Lugar plan would expand the ‘Quartet’ currently directing the peace process -- the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations --into a “Sextet” by adding Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would control the Palestinian territories under an international trusteeship. “This trusteeship”, he said, “would provide enhanced security for both Palestinians and Israelis; it could restructure the Palestinian security services, and lead a reform of the Palestinians’ failed institutions. It would turn back sovereignty at the appropriate time... (inclusion of Arab states) would give them a role in what they themselves claim is at the core of many of their own problems.”

The Lugar initiative draws heavily on the findings of the 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report. The Report, prepared by a group of Arab scholars under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme, identifies knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment as the most serious challenges to development. It says that the whole Arab world translates only 300 books annually, 65 million Arab adults, including half of the women, are illiterate, and only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. It contends that this isolation contributes to the misunderstanding and prejudice that leads to violence, and that other advancements in communications, transportation, health and educational opportunities have yet to reach large percentages of the people of the Greater Middle East. It notes that fourteen million Arab adults do not make enough money to buy even the most basic necessities. Steep population increases in many Arab countries mean that as many as 50 million more Arab workers will enter the job market in the next eight years.

Lugar acknowledges that “It will be a challenge to convince (Arab nations ) to join the Trust as partners in a process that will require them to make…fundamental changes.” He says “that’s why the Trust will seek to engage all elements of societies. The Arab Human Development Report calls on the state, civil society, cultural and mass media institutions, enlightened intellectuals and the public at large to plant those values that encourage action and innovation in the political, social and economic sphere.”

He is also aware that “achieving the kind of regional transformation we seek will require many steps over a long period of time. The first step, before deciding WHAT change is necessary, must be for the leaders and the people of the Greater Middle East to agree, through vigorous and open debate among themselves and across the region, that change IS necessary. This reform in attitude cannot be imposed from outside, it must be generated from within the region, across national boundaries. And it must be seen in the context of people taking charge of their own futures.”

Some observers have characterized Sen. Lugar’s initiative as his ‘audition’ for Secretary of State. Perhaps. But the United States could do far worse. For many years, Lugar has been highly respected by both Democrats and Republicans as the wisest and most thoughtful foreign policy voice in the US Senate. His work on anti-WMD proliferation continues to make the world demonstrably safer. As Secretary, he would likely be comfortable with either George W. Bush or John Kerry – perhaps even helping to bring back the days of Democratic President Harry Truman when, as Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg said, “politics stops at the water’s edge”. That was the era that brought the world the Marshall Plan. Finally, Lugar has for years shown he is prepared to put politics aside, question the policies and conventional wisdom of his own party, and stand up to its leaders when he thinks they are wrong.

So even if the timing of Sen Lugar’s proposal suggests he is doing a kind of dress rehearsal for the State Department – and attempting to preempt the many other aspirants for this arguably thankless job -- his ideas deserve the most careful exploration.

Their implementation, however, would face huge challenges. Would the wealthier Arab states be willing to partner with the G-8? Would they feel they would really be full partners, or ‘window dressing’ to provide an appearance of legitimacy? The governments of the Greater Middle East are divided about virtually everything; can they now agree on a country-by-country agenda and timetable for reform? And actually implement it? Does the West have the patience to embrace the slow, evolutionary approach proposed by the Arabs?

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is an even thornier problem. For decades, Arab governments have been the Palestinians’ ‘rhetorical allies’, but most have made no real effort to resolve this intractable problem. Would they now be prepared to put their money where their speechwriters have been? How would the Palestinians react to Trusteeship? Who would the Sextet negotiate with -- the PLO and Mr. Arafat? Hamas? How would Israel feel about the idea of Trusteeship for the Palestinian territories, and its management by two Arab countries, one of which does not recognize Israel? What would be Israel’s role in reaching solutions? Would the US have the political will to exercise maximum leverage on Israel? And on and on.

Yet if the United States is be a credible change agent in the Middle East, there are few people as well equipped as Mr. Lugar – by experience, knowledge and temperament – to lead the US effort – regardless of who gets elected in November.