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U.S. Supports Democratic Aspirations of All People in the Middle East

During her recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States for 60 years has pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region and had achieved neither. So, Washington is now taking a different course and is supporting the “democratic aspirations of all people.”

Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called Secretary Rice’s speech in Cairo a fine example of a “courageous” American diplomat going to the heart of the matter in the most populous Arab country and “speaking truth to power.” And he described the promotion of democracy as the “central feature” of the Bush second term. Speaking on VOA New Now’s Encounter, Mr. Satloff called the speech the major accomplishment of Secretary Rice’s Middle East trip.

Steven Cook, director the Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force report, “In Support of Arab Democracy,” agreed, but he said her speech was unfortunately “too long in coming.” Nonetheless, Mr. Cook believes it represents the dramatic departure in US Middle East policy since 9/11, which is that U.S. interests in the region are best secured by democratic regimes rather than by stable but autocratic ones. According to him, the main problem in the region is that non-democratic regimes are “too stable” with leaders who have been in power for decades.

Robert Satloff said the United States has changed the context of its Middle East policy by putting democracy promotion at the top of its agenda. And Steven Cook noted that the Bush administration is no longer “shy” with political leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia about pressing for reform. But neither Mr. Satloff nor Mr. Cook considers it prudent at this time for the United States to threaten traditional Arab allies, such as Egypt, with cuts in economic or military aid if they do not move as rapidly as Washington would like. According to Mr. Satloff, Washington should encourage evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change – a process that will probably take years to accomplish. Furthermore, he noted that President Mubarak is likely to be the winner of Egypt’s presidential elections in September. So, he urged that it is more realistic to focus on Egypt’s legislative elections as Secretary Rice suggested – for example, by providing international observers and by encouraging free access to media. Mr. Cook added that the problem with using “conditionality” as a tactic is that it might prompt a political backlash and the United States might lose its ability to influence Egypt in positive ways.

Although both Mr. Cook and Mr. Satloff think it is theoretically possible that popular Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah, could evolve into peaceful political factions, neither of them thinks that Washington should engage these groups diplomatically right now. Both Mr. Cook and Mr. Satloff agreed that the success of U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Arab world will depend on diplomats in Washington and in the field who speak with “one voice” and who reach out to support “real democrats” in the Middle East, not just the “principle” of democratic reform.

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.