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Promoting Democracy in The Middle East: U.S. Credibility Hinges on Success in Iraq


Marina Ottaway, senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. doctrine of promoting democracy in the Middle East is “risky.” But she supports the policy shift because she says America has “supported the status quo in the Middle East for far too long.”

Speaking with Carol Castiel, host of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Ms. Ottaway says countries become democratic only when there is a “different balance of power internally” and when the democratic opposition is strong enough to challenge the government.

Nonetheless, Ms. Ottaway acknowledges that there is now a “confluence of various factors” in the Arab world that fosters democracy, some of which are related to U.S. policy. One example is Iraq, especially the successful January 30th elections. But she said other Arab countries do not see political change in Iraq as a “model,” as they view with fear the possibility of U.S. intervention in their country. According to Marina Ottaway, change in Palestine is primarily a consequence of the death of Yasser Arafat. In Lebanon, it was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that has triggered the outpouring of democratic expression.

Ms. Ottaway, who is also co-editor of the recently published book, “Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East,” says the major obstacles to democratic reform in the Middle East will only be overcome when domestic opposition forces become better organized. Currently, the Islamist groups have a more substantial grassroots following than do the “liberals” who are comprised of small groups of intellectuals that have not yet been able to penetrate the masses. While the United States has contact with the liberal dissidents, it has never directly engaged the Islamist groups because some use violence to achieve their political ends.

However, Ms. Ottaway says U.S. unfamiliarity with the Islamist groups is one of the major weaknesses of U.S. policy in the Middle East. On the positive side, the Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are beginning to evolve as external circumstances change. For example, their leaders now recognize that any democratic opening, no matter how limited, provides a chance for Islamist groups to gain influence by legal means. This, says Marina Ottaway, might force them to begin to renounce violence as a means to their political ends.

Ms. Ottaway points out that Islamist groups are often quick to exploit what they perceive as inconsistencies in U.S. policy. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, or the Party of God, is considered a legal political entity, but it also has armed militias that Washington insists must be disbanded. However, in Iraq, Ms. Ottaway says, the United States did not take the position that all the Shi’ite and Kurdish parties would have to disarm their respective militias before the election took place. Regarding Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group, she says, it would be almost impossible for that group to totally abandon force in pursuit of their goals so long as the Israeli-Palestinian issue has not been settled.

Marina Ottaway says Arabs tend to be suspicious of U.S. Middle East policy for several reasons. First, they do not see the United States as an honest broker in the region because of Washington’s special relationship with Israel. Second, the war in Iraq is enormously unpopular. Third, most Arab analysts believe that the Bush administration is more interested in “cosmetic concessions” by Arab governments, such as Egypt, so it can claim results “without pushing for true change.” She adds that she does not believe that Washington wants to see “regime change” in Egypt because President Hosni Mubarak is a useful ally in the region.

For example, it angers Arab liberals when President Bush states that Saudi Arabia is making progress towards democracy when in reality, Riyadh has allowed only “very limited municipal elections.”

Not coincidentally, it is the Saudi monarchy that represents the most difficult problem of all, Marina Ottaway asserts. She says it is “hard to imagine a scenario that would lead to greater democracy.” But she is encouraged by the fact that at least a national dialogue is beginning to take place. She said that the main problem there is not that women lack political rights but that “nobody” has political rights. What is necessary, she believes, is to curb the “excessive power of the government” in nearly all the countries of the Arab world. Ms. Ottaway says that U.S. credibility in the region will also hinge on success in Iraq. However, she says it is important that the United States not be seen as interfering with the writing of a permanent constitution, one of the primary tasks of the newly elected National Assembly. She warned it would send the wrong message to all the Arab countries if the United States were to play too visible a role in Iraq’s democratic development. While welcoming President Bush’s rhetoric about promoting democracy, Ms. Ottaway says in the final analysis, actions are more important than words when it comes to bolstering democratic movements in the Middle East.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.

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