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July 06, 2006



On the question of the Bush administration's retreat from its grand public commitments to Arab democracy a few years ago, we always knew these statements reflected domestic politics and the Bush admn's need to show they had a plan post 9/11 more than a real desire to put money and troops behind these principles.

But what's really disappointing is that the administration won't even offer moral support for democratizers in places like Egypt any more. It would have been nice if the Americans could have used their leverage to help keep some space open for domestic activists, at the very least, even if it was never going to be a neat little five-phase spiral model for socialization in human rights norms (if you'll excuse the nerdy IR reference).

America's credibility on democracy in the Middle East has never been very high anyway, so it's unlikely this will be a body blow. But I agree that it's a lesson in why talk isn't as cheap as it may initially appear.

Nur al-Cubicle

Well, the French say the "Greater Middle East Intitiative" was nothing more than an evasion of the Palestinian issue. It was cheap talk from Day One.

Rex Brynen

Ironically, I am quite convinced that the Bush administration thinks that it *is* serious about Arab demcratization. Certainly, its put a great deal of internal effort (much of it unreported and out of the public eye) into thinking about how democratic transitions in the Middle East might be promoted. Fundamentally, many (including, apparently, the President) believe that Arab autocracy contributed to 9/11. The Administration is, I think, more serious than many of the Europeans, who privately can be quite old-school cynical about the prospects for democratic governance in the Arab world.

There are, however, several critical (probably fatal) flaws in Washington's approach. First, its "democratization agenda" runs up against its "security agenda" --with the latter (rendition of suspects, support for repressive allies in the "war on terror," etc.), usually winning out. Second, it believes that these agendas are compatible (that the US can "walk and chew gum" as one senior NSC staffer told me). In practice, they often aren't: you can't, for example, extoll the virtues of democracy, and remain quiet when Mubarak represses the Muslim Brtherhood because of their democratic success. Related to this, Washington has no idea what to do with "moderate" Islamists who are willing to participate in democratic processes but who are strong critics of US foreign policy. Finally, general US policy in Palestine, Iraq, etc, severely damages the credibility of any democracy and human rights messages that the US does try to give.

Could Washington do more? I think it could do much more. Trying to get it to do more, however, requires a deeper understanding of the policy dynamics at work than simply dismissing it all as domestic grandstanding.

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