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The withdrawal of Syria's military from Lebanon and the formation of an elected Iraqi government are just the latest proof of the claim by George W. Bush, US president, that "freedom is on the march" in the greater Middle East.

The last five months have been good ones for the forces of democratisation in the region, with municipal and presidential elections by the Palestinians, voting at the local level in Saudi Arabia and, most notably, millions of Iraqis braving violence to reclaim their future in national elections.

These promising moves, however, should not obscure the pathologies and stagnation that still characterise much of the region.

In the greater Middle East, terrorist violence is widely seen as a legitimate means of political expression; economic growth is anaemic; education is wholly inadequate to the demands of the 21st century; and human rights - especially women's rights - are disregarded. The road to freedom will be long and winding, full of detours, roundabouts and cul-de-sacs.

The challenge for the Bush administration is to craft a long-term strategy that supports efforts to reform and democratise the region; discredits and marginalises those who oppose this vision; and, at the same time, preserves stability in a region vital for its energy reserves.

The size and difficulty of this challenge cannot be exaggerated. As we have seen elsewhere, dictators and tyrants will not willingly or easily relax their iron grip. Some will reject outright any reform efforts. Others may grudgingly accept limited economic reforms as a way to defer more meaningful political reforms.

In a complex region that extends from northern Africa to south-west Asia, different countries will require different tactics. Washington will have to tailor its approach to local conditions. Furthermore, it cannot always expect its efforts to lead immediately to stability and political freedom. The US will be unable finely to calibrate its reform policy, dialling up a little more democracy on Tuesday and a little less on Thursday.

The forces of change may unleash extremist political movements that set back the cause of freedom. "One man, one vote, one time" may come to pass. And any fundamental change in the Arab world is likely to be painfully slow; in the Middle East it often comes one funeral at a time.

Moreover, reform cannot be imposed top down by the US on countries in this region. (If it could, the chances are that Washington would already have done so.) Indeed, given the current low standing of the US throughout the Arab world, direct involvement will be mistrusted by precisely those in the region whom the US most wants to help. Open American assistance could fatally discredit any Arab reformer.

Real reform must grow from local roots, but it will not prosper without external encouragement and support. Devising effective ways to empower moderate voices in the Arab world who share democratic values is essential for promoting reform and marginalising the extremists.

The likelihood of success would increase if the US enlisted its European allies in this effort. For the last 10 years the European Union has carried out its own engagement strategy in the region, the so-called Barcelona process. EU officials privately admit that this programme has little to show for the €10bn ($13bn) it has spent, but relationships have been established and some lessons have been learnt.

Brussels and Washington need to share best practices and identify where each party has a comparative advantage with certain countries to make assistance more effective.

The Bush administration has made a strong start through the launch of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative at last year's summits of the G8 leading industrialised countries and of the US and EU. But more needs to be done to institutionalise this plan, draw other partners from beyond the G8 and the EU, and establish this multilateral partnership as an agent for genuine democratic change.

Despite the challenges, the good news is that Mr Bush has squarely associated the US with aspirations that are shared throughout the region. For the past three years, the United Nations Arab Human Development Report has eloquently called for more political freedoms, educational reforms and economic opportunities. As the reports make clear, these are not American or western values; they are universal, and broadly embraced in the Middle East.

In the coming decades, the US needs to demonstrate in the Arab world the same patience, confidence and creativity it did with its cold war strategy of containment. Helping the people of this region lift themselves out of poverty and repression is not just a moral luxury. It is a strategic imperative.

The writer, vice-provost for international affairs at the College of William & Mary, was director of policy planning at the US State Department between July 2003 and February 2005

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