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Task Force: US Support for Arab Reform Critical to Winning War on Terror

A report from a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations says U.S. support for democratic reform in the Arab world is critical to winning the war on terrorism and repairing America's image in the Middle East. 

The task force report says the Middle East will be a central focus of U.S. foreign policy for the next generation and beyond, and that Washington has the opportunity to help shape a more democratic region.

A co-chair of the task force, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, says the group generally supports the Bush administration's efforts to persuade Arab governments to accept democratic reforms.

"Support for democracy is an important tool in counter-terrorism and working in that particular way," she said.  "We also believe that the best stability is actually democratic stability.  Finally, support for democracy, we believe, will help restore America's credibility in the Middle East region." 

The task force says the United States should promote the development of democratic institutions over the long term, and that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside.

Task force members say America's goal in the Middle East should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution.

Task force co-chair Vin Webber, a former congressman who is now chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, says promoting political, economic and social change in the Arab world requires a country-by-country strategy. 

"Because of the skepticism that people in the region justifiably have toward our motivations, and certainly even more so toward their own governments' willingness to reform, we need to make very concrete the direction that individual countries are taking," said Mr. Webber.  "While we understand that this should not be a straight-jacketed [inflexible] approach, a uniform approach, or what you might call a cookie-cutter approach, every country in the Middle East is different.  We believe that the United States should work with the governments in the region for each country to establish its own, as we would call it, a pathway to reform."

The task force found that Islamic movements and political parties are likely to play a prominent role in a more democratic Middle East.

Former Secretary of State Albright says Washington should support the political participation of any group or party that abides by the rules and norms of the democratic process.

"We do not think that the United States should deal with groups that are on the terrorist list, but we also think it is very important for us to recognize that peaceful Islamic groups are very much part of the process," she added.  "Policy-makers have to recognize, in any case, that armed organizations, such as Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah, are already participants in the democratic activities of their societies." 

The task force also recommends that the U.S. government restore funds for the Voice of America's Arabic service, saying it should emphasize reform issues, in addition to providing news and information.

VOA's Arabic service was replaced several years ago by Radio Sawa, which uses a mix of popular music and regular news bulletins to target younger Arabs.

The report says the VOA Arabic service traditionally broadcast to a wider-range audience, including elites, and should become an integral component of Washington's public diplomacy strategy.

Task force members also say the United States should expand trade relations, military ties, and diplomatic support with Arab countries demonstrating democratic progress.

They say Washington should take steps to distance itself from governments that refuse, over time, to recognize the political rights of their citizens.

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