The Bush administration is preparing a new international initiative aimed at encouraging greater democracy and economic reform in the Middle East. But Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States will not try to impose its values on reluctant governments in the region.
President Bush has already committed his administration to working for democratic reform in the Middle East in a policy address late last year.
But officials say they hope to reinforce that by enlisting key U.S. allies in the democratization effort with appeals at summit meetings later this year of NATO, the European Union and the G-8 industrial powers and Russia.
Though details are still being worked out, the initiative is expected to be announced by President Bush in June when he hosts the annual G-8 summit at Sea Island Georgia.
Officials say they hope to bring the U.S. allies and countries in the greater Middle Eastern region into a structure loosely modeled on the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which are widely credited with advancing democratization of the former Soviet bloc.
Administration officials have already begun sounding out European and Middle Eastern countries about the idea, and it figured in meetings Secretary Powell had Monday with Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot and Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa.
At a joint press appearance with his Bahraini counterpart, Mr. Powell said the United States is looking for ways to assist reform efforts already underway in the region, without being heavy-handed. "We're not looking for something to impose on the region. We're looking for things we can work with the region on. It's an effort to engage the region. And there are nations in the region that are making very important decisions and steps with respect to democracy, with respect to the protection of human rights, with respect to economic development. Bahrain is an example, a good example of one of these nations. And so we're looking at how we can bring this all together to support reform in the Middle East, for the benefit of the people of the Middle East," he said.
The Bahraini Foreign Minister, whose government has held trend-setting parliamentary elections and is close to having a free-trade agreement with the United States, said the regional reform process can benefit from help from established democracies. But the U.S. educated Bahraini official also said no one model for democratization can work for all countries in the Middle East and broader Muslim world. "One size fits all is not going to work across the whole region. But we certainly support the general principles advocated by the reform process. You can summarize them in three basic principles: one is democracy, two is rule of law, and three is adherence to a free-market or capitalist system. I think those three pillars need to be encouraged, and each country needs to define how it wants to move, and when it wants to move on these issues. Now, if they do want to move, there needs to be support for them and help to get them across the difficult barriers that lie in the way of real reform," he said.
President Bush launched the United States' effort in a Washington speech last November, challenging longtime U.S. Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to begin embracing reforms, and to view the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a "watershed event" in a "global democratic revolution."
He said 60 years of Western countries "excusing and accommodating" a lack of freedom in the Middle East had done nothing to make them safe, and that stability "cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
The Washington Post newspaper said Monday the aim of the broader effort with U.S. allies is to flesh out the Bush initiative and keep it moving despite problems with Iraq's political transition and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.