U.S. gives priority to Palestinian state over Mideast democracy

Monday, May 19, 2003

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 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 said.

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 issue.

"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."

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