The Bush administration has decided to rank its
pro-democracy drive in the Middle East behind other U.S. priorities in the
region, such as the establishment of a Palestinian state and the
reconstruction of Iraq.
Officials said the State Department has helped redefine a call by
President George Bush last year that sought to encourage democracy as a key
to Middle East stability and peace. They said the administration has now
agreed that the State Department would focus on the establishment of a
Palestinian state and the reconstruction of Iraq while it lowers the profile
of any pro-democracy effort in the region.
"Support for democratic change has to be an integral part of a broader
strategy that seeks with equal vigor to solve the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict; build a stable, prosperous, democratic Iraq; and modernize
regional economies," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said.
Officials said the administration wants to achieve significant progress
toward a Palestinian state and the establishment of a new Iraqi government
over the next few months. In contrast, they said, the pro-democracy drive in
the Middle East would be largely replaced by U.S. incentives for free trade
with the Arab world.
The downgrading of the pro-democracy drive in the Middle East, officials
said, comes amid fears that U.S. allies in the regime are being undermined
by Islamic insurgency attacks. They said pressing for significant reforms in
such countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia could hurt security cooperation
with those Arab League members.
Burns, who heads State Department policy on the Middle East, outlined
the new administration's vision of Middle East democracy in an address to
the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington on Friday. The
senior official said the process of democratization must be gradual and come
from the people of the region.
"If we can support democratic change in the framework of a broader
strategy for economic modernization, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a
prosperous new Iraq; if we can understand the connections between those
issues and what's at stake for American interests for many years to come Ñ
then a time of crisis can become a turning point, a turning point in which
hope begins to replace the despair on which violent extremists breed," Burns
Burns said the U.S. view of democracy in the Middle East goes beyond the
holding of elections. He cited the establishment of stable institutions, the
rule of law and the forming of civil society.
[Over the weekend, Egyptian Education Minister Hassin Kamal Beha Eddin
returned from a visit to the United States, where he met Bush administration
officials. Beha Eddin denied reports that his discussions with U.S.
officials focused on revising Egypt's education curriculum that would
eliminate books or courses against Christianity or the West.]
Burns acknowledged skepticism toward the administration's pro-democracy
policy. Burns said that for decades the United States largely ignored the
"I have been an American diplomat for 21 years, through four
administrations," Burns said. "I have spent much of that time working on
Middle East issues. It is a fair criticism of all of our efforts during
those years to say that we have never paid adequate attention to the
long-term importance of opening up some very stagnant political systems,
especially in the Arab world."