Saturday, March 20, 2004


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By William Fisher

Two recent events illustrate the unfortunate penchant of Arab regimes to shoot themselves in the foot. On March 16, Saudi Arabia detained several prominent reformers. A week earlier, Syrian police broke up a peaceful demonstration by some 20 human rights activists seeking political and economic reforms.

Why are these kinds of events so damaging to Middle East Arab governments? Because they undermine the credibility of many promises -- and a few actions – these governments have taken to bring greater transparency and political participation to their citizens.

Arab governments are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the Middle East Initiative proposed by President George W. Bush to ‘democratize’ the region. They view the policy as a neo-colonial attempt to impose ‘American-style’ democracy on the area, and contend – with some justification – that democracy cannot be imposed externally and must be homegrown and suited to each country’s history and culture.

While talk of ‘reform’ fills the Middle East and North Africa, some Arab states have taken the first baby steps toward beginning to protect their citizens’ civil and political liberties. Saudi Arabia is one of these. The Kingdom’s first independent human rights organization recently won Royal approval; the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals – several of whom were among those arrested last week – and introduced changes to its education and religions institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam and are blamed by Western critics for creating a fertile environment for militants.

Syria has done far less. President Bashir Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system he inherited. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted on a charge of trying illegally to change the constitution.

The protest by the 20 Syrian activists was against the continued use of the so-called Emergency Laws in force since 1963. The measures allow Syrian authorities to restrict the right to freedom of expression by permitting the censorship of correspondence, communications and information media. They also allow for the establishment of special courts for the trial of state security and political cases without recourse to ordinary court procedures and guarantees, and give the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens with charge, trial or legal representation. The Syrian response was to have police disperse the 20 protesters, angrily tell reporters to leave, and take several protestors into custody.

The Saudi incident was triggered by a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, urging the government to provide a timetable for the implementation of reforms. The police arrested eight of the petitioners because, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, the signatories’ actions “do not serve national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law.''

President Assad’s knee-jerk reaction against this tiny protest is a backward step that should be condemned by Arab leaders who recognize the need to move forward by instituting their own reforms. The Saudi action, said one academic with ties among the detainees, “will make people lose trust in the government and their promises. It contradicts 100 percent what they have been promising.'' Crown Prince Abdullah vowed that his country will press ahead with reforms but rejected any ``reckless adventure,'' saying change will be measured and studied. Syria has not commented on the arrests.

But the reactions of both governments are more likely to strengthen human rights activism and give advocates the gift of international media attention. Syria’s actions can only bolster US resolve to impose sanctions on the country.

In their over-reactions, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria have, yet again, shot their countries in the foot. They have invited condemnation by internationally respected groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and, sadly, given aid and comfort to the Bush Administration’s doomed Greater Middle East Initiative.


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By William Fisher

Though it may be hard to believe in our post-9/11 world, there was a time when US foreign policy was less shrill, less arrogant, and less partisan, and when policy makers understood that democracy could not be imposed from outside.

In the ‘old days’, Democratic President Harry S. Truman forged a partnership with congressional leaders like Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg to advance American interests in the perilous years following World War II. That partnership resulted in, among other initiatives, the Marshall Plan. It was Senator Vandenberg who first said, “politics stops at the water's edge.”

America has seen virtually none of this since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US foreign policy dialog has been strident and insensitive. The Executive Branch of government has steadily usurped the traditional authority of the Congress to, for example, declare war. This is very different from authorizing the President to take the nation to war. The result has often been a debate on details rather than core substance. The Marshall Plan contained no ‘one size fits all’ rhetoric about bringing democracy to Europe, in contrast to President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative.

Perhaps it is time the US re-learned the lessons of its own history. One way to begin to achieve this is through the choice of Colin Powell’s successor as Secretary of State. It is well know that Secretary Powell has differed with President Bush on many foreign policy issues. But his military background appears to have made him the ultimate team player, even to the point of advocating for Administration positions about which he has doubts.

The choice of his successor is a key element of a return to a far more informed and civil foreign policy. I would suggest that, if George Bush is reelected, he should appoint Democratic Senator Joseph Biden to run the State Department. If John Kerry wins the presidency, his Secretary of State should be Republican Senator Richard Lugar or fellow Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. This is not just because these leaders happen to be from the opposite party. It is because they are all experts in foreign affairs and diplomacy who might just be able to restore some consensus to American foreign policy.

Dick Lugar is an unwavering advocate of US leadership in the world, strong national security, free trade and economic growth. He is the author of the Lugar Doctrine and co-sponsor of the Nunn-Lugar program, developed to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are accounted, contained and destroyed.

Chuck Hagel has been a member of the Foreign Relations committee since his election to the Senate in 1996, and is currently the second ranking Republican on the committee. He is Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. He also sits on the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Subcommittee on European Affairs, and serves as the Co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Joe Biden, the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, is the Democratic Party's chief spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. One of the most respected voices on national security and civil liberties, he has earned national and international recognition as a policy innovator, effective legislator and party spokesman on a wide range of key issues.

All three men voted for most of the Bush foreign policy initiatives. But all have relentlessly questioned, publicly, the way some of these measures have been implemented. Any of them would have the strength and the integrity to stand up to the President and to foster consistency and transparency in policymaking and policy implementation.

It’s a pity that party politics prevents Messrs. Bush and Kerry from announcing these appointments now. Any of them would go a long way toward restoring US credibility in the international community.



By William Fisher

Is it possible that President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative to bring democracy to the area – roundly condemned by most Arab governments – is actually having some positive impact on democratic reform in this troubled neighborhood?

Reform-talk is nothing new in the Middle East and North Africa. The rhetoric of reform has been heard throughout the region for many years, though there are few tangible gains to show for it. But both the pace and the decibel level of discussion appear to have increased since the US plan to ‘democratize’ the region was leaked to a London newspaper.

The Middle East initiative is aimed at the arc of countries extending from Morocco to Pakistan and urges them to undertake major political and economic reforms, especially those that would advance women, and guarantee human rights. The Bush administration had planned to present its proposals at the G8 summit of industrial nations in June, but has now abandoned this action in the face of widespread Arab criticism.

Much of the Arab world’s reaction to the plan is summed up by Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam. The plan, he said, was “reminiscent of past colonial scheming. This initiative reminds us of the situation before World War I, when major powers were seeking a way to fragment the region and divide it among themselves,” he told reporters. “No one can impose anything on Arabs … Arabs can choose for themselves.” Other Arab critics question whether the plan was presented properly. ”It seems to have been announced in the (Bush) administration’s typical high-handed way, without serious prior consultations. So this cannot be presented as a genuinely cooperative enterprise….” Critics say the US plan demonstrates its lack of sensitivity to the social and cultural differences between America and the Arab world.

Faced with flat-out rejection from some of its closest allies, the United States has belatedly said the plan is only a suggestion. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman said the best ideas for reform will come from the region.

Thus reform is likely to be high on the agenda of the Arab League when it meets in Tunis later this month. This comes as something of a surprise because little achievement was expected from the forthcoming Arab League Summit. For example, because of the deep differences among member states, none of the League’s 22 members have ever ratified the organization’s 1994 Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, many of the countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa have autocratic regimes that operate under so-called Emergency Laws that give their governments sweeping powers to strip citizens of their human and political rights.

Yet there is some evidence that some Arab countries are taking reform seriously. Here are some of the more recent: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have formed human rights committees, attached to their governments but promising independent action. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has talked of a wide-ranging reform agenda, starting with a promise to stop jailing journalists, though the country’s Emergency Law remains very much in force. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has created an Advisory Working Group to study the major challenges facing the kingdom, including the implementation of municipal elections, with full voting rights granted to women. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have committed to radical modernization of their education systems, with special emphasis on women’s right to education. The Algerian Government has created a ‘mechanism’ to try to discover what happened to the thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens. Saudi Arabia’s first elections will take place in 14 municipalities in October – in which women will vote for the first time – and Saudi analysts say they should lead to general elections.

While these events might be seen as baby steps toward comprehensive reform, as the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star points out, “For a part of the world that has resisted change for decades while breeding poverty, religious extremism and terrorism, that is already progress of a sort.”

But many obstacles threaten to derail progress toward homegrown reform. For many years, the Arab League has been considered reactionary, virtually irrelevant because of the deep divisions among its member states, and totally preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It has often been accused of using this explosive issue to justify its inaction in other areas. The importance of the issue to Middle East Arabs was again underscored by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. ``As far as the Greater Middle East Initiative is concerned, ” he said recently, “it should not be confined to developing the societies but also to achieving stability in the region. This stability cannot be achieved without a fair, correct and balanced treatment of the Palestinian cause and the Iraqi issue.'' In countries like Saudi Arabia, fundamentalist clergy are creating multiple obstructions. A number of governments in the region, including Egypt and Syria, are continuing to use the threat of terrorism to justify their continuation of draconian Emergency Laws. And America’s Iraqi adventure further clouds the Arab perception of America’s track record in the area.

According to a recent editorial in the Jordan Times, “The continuation of conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli deadlock and the Iraqi occupation, leads to radicalization of the entire region and makes the endeavors to reform it that much more difficult. The rise of political violence and even terrorism is directly linked to these festering conflicts and without security and stability, no political and economic reforms can be pursued with much success…the real reason why these conflicts exist in the first place is the absence of reforms. Had the countries directly or indirectly affected by these conflicts undergone meaningful reforms decades ago, the conflicts in question may not have reached their present stage of urgency. “

So at the level of realpolitik, there seems to be no viable alternative to accepting homegrown reforms, however slow and frustrating. The role of the United States, the European Community, and all others who enjoy the fruits of democracy, can only be as partners and helpers – not as prescriptors.

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