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New Book Urges Continued U.S. Role in Promoting Democracy in the Arab World

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, many U.S. policy experts concluded that an important factor in the rise of violent Muslim fundamentalism was the lack of democracy and political freedom in the Arab world. This notion – spelled out in what President Bush calls his Freedom Agenda – has made the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere a critical element of U.S. national security. Now, as Americans prepare for a change in leadership, a new book by a veteran Mideast policy analyst urges the next U.S. president to keep democracy promotion high on the strategic agenda, but with some important differences. Mohamed Elshinnawi has more.

With his time in the White House drawing to a close, President Bush used a recent Washington address to urge his successor to continue his agenda of promoting freedom and spreading democracy throughout the world.

"The challenge for America in the years ahead," Bush said, "is to continue to help people in struggling nations achieve freedom from corruption, freedom from disease, freedom from poverty, freedom from hunger and freedom from tyranny. Combating hopelessness is in America's security interest because the only way our enemies can recruit people to their dark ideology is to exploit distress and despair."

Promoting freedom and democracy in the world is a goal any U.S. president would support. But the next occupant of the White House will want to distance himself from some of the Bush Administration's more controversial democratization efforts.

"The idea of the Freedom Agenda is so closely associated with President Bush that in terms of American domestic politics, there is no political incentive to make it a major agenda item for either of the presidential candidates right now," says Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Middle East Democracy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Wittes says both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain "are trying to define themselves as independent thinkers and as people who will create a new legacy and not simply continue the legacy of the current president."

Wittes notes that both candidates have said they believe democracy promotion is in America's national interest. Both men have backed increased congressional funding for the National Endowment for Democracy – a non-profit organization that supports pro-democracy groups around the world. They've also pledged to pay close attention to human rights concerns.

In her new book, Freedom's Unsteady March: America's Role in Building Arab Democracy, Wittes argues that whatever difficulties and setbacks the Bush Administration has encountered in promoting democracy in the Middle East, the next president must find new and better ways to achieve the same goal.

"Although the Bush administration went about democracy promotion in a way that in certain ways was counterproductive," Wittes says, "that it does not mean it was the wrong idea." She contends "in order to build a solid foundation for U.S.-Arab cooperation, the next American president needs to care about and support democratic growth in the Arab world."

But Wittes advises the new U.S. president to de-link democracy promotion from the so-called war on terror, because, she says, it was inappropriate in the first place to consider pro-democracy initiatives as a strategy for combating terrorism.

She believes the new President must start treating freedom promotion as a strategic imperative all its own. "Even if the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved, even if Iraq is stabilized and American troops leave, the U.S is still going to care very much what happens in the Middle East," she says. "We want to have strong U.S.-Arab relations and we want to have a positive role in the region and it is very hard to do that when citizens of the region themselves feel as though they are being left out of the planning for their future."

In Freedom's Unsteady March, author Tamara Cofman Wittes concludes that the United States can't afford to assume a more passive or neutral role in the Middle East, despite political pressures to do so. Instead, she says, the U.S. must wield its power and influence more effectively – to support real, home-grown democratic movements in the Arab world.