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US 'Lukewarm' on Arab Democracy

Administration sees long-term instability in reforms; regional experts say climate is right. RESTRUCTURING THE MIDDLE EAST

DAVID MACK, head of the US State Department's Iran-Iraq desk, sat on the dais at a recent meeting of Iraqi groups opposed to President Saddam Hussein.When he stood to speak, Mr. Mack reiterated Washington's reluctance to back democracy in Baghdad. The United States, he said, is not "calling for popular rebellion" against Saddam. Nor does it "favor one faction over another." Meetings with the Iraqi opposition, he explained, are "to further mutual understanding." The Bush administration's postwar policy, aimed at toppling Saddam but not necessarily in favor of a democratic alternative, has become yet another point of contention in a debate here over whether Washington should commit itself to fostering democracy in the Middle East. Some analysts say that in general the US is lukewarm if not unenthusiastic about democraticization in the Arab world. They cite not only Iraq, but US policy in Kuwait in the postwar period and the Bush administration's decision not to confront Emir Jabir al-Sabah over the issue of early elections.

A climate for reforms? The administration maintains that the US did not go to war in the Persian Gulf to bring democracy to Kuwait; some in the administration contend the Arab world is not ready for democracy. "You don't have a polity that's ready out there," says one US official. Academics specializing in the Middle East actively disagree. In June, at a conference organized at Princeton, Middle East experts agreed that democracy in the region is possible. "There are pro-democracy movements and we ought to support them," says Jill Crystal, a specialist on Kuwait at the University of Michigan who attended the conference. The US has not been an enthusiastic advocate of democracy in the third world in general, academics point out. But State Department officials trace Washington's particular lack of enthusiasm for democracy in the Middle East back to the late 1970s, when the US coaxed the Shah of Iran to stop human rights abuses and open up the political process. In the end, Iran was consumed by an Islamic revolution that to this day is still unfriendly to the US.

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Legacy of the Shah's fall "What we didn't realize is that the Shah was messing with the social fabric and religious tradition and it unraveled. It fell apart," says the US official. Since then, the official maintains, the US is reluctant to encourage democracy in the Middle East for fear of new unravelings. "You don't mind encouraging your enemies, like the Soviet Union, to democratize," he notes, "but you are loath to encourage your friends to do something that might produce disorder." For a brief period after the Gulf war, those fears abated, especially regarding Kuwait, and the administration strongly advocated early elections there. But soon it backed off. When the Kuwaiti government announced elections for October 1992, the Bush administration acceded. Subsequently, the Washington Post reported that Saudia Arabia had asked the US to drop the issue of democratization in Kuwait for fear the movement would spill into its own kingdom. The State Department has yet to comment on that report. Defending the US position, one official says, "We just moved out of a period of instability, and if you want real instability, try democracy." In addition, in recent months, democratization in North Africa has been accompanied by violence. In June, the Algerian government postponed elections and transferred broad police powers to the Army in the wake of violence by Islamic factions. And the government of neighboring Tunisia, claiming it uncovered a plot by Islamicists to seize power, is in the midst of a crackdown. "There are some people in the [State] Department who see the rise of fundamentalism as a problem in itself," says the official. "Certain people look at events in Tunisia and Algeria and say that's what you get when you open up." But Professor Crystal says the fear is misplaced. "The Islamic groups transform when they move into government and have to deal with garbage collection." "We have a notion that we ought to support stability, so we favor the short-term stability of a dictator over the bumpier long-term stability of democracy," she says, adding that US concern for the free flow of oil is an important factor. "We've got people in place we can work with." Crystal contends that postwar Kuwait was a test case for the US commitment to democracy in the region and that Washington should have held more steadfastly to early elections.

Offering a taste For its part, the US Agency for International Development (AID), which administers foreign aid, has been developing what it calls "Democratic Initiatives," gentle ways of exposing friendly nations to democratic concepts. AID recently brought 10 Egyptian parliamentarians to Washington for a two-week introduction of the US legislative process. The speaker of Egypt's parliament, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, initiated the idea. But the US did not insist that the visitors include members of Egypt's legal opposition. Consequently, no opposition groups were represented. Several parliamentarians said they thought the trip was useful, but one in the group said she was "fed up" with the US holding itself up as a model, a feeling that is widespread in Egypt. And she added another widely held belief: The US may well be inadvertently promoting undemocratic elements like Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East by adapting policies widely seen as pro-Israel. US experts involved in the Egyptian program concede that a quick taste of the legislative ropes cannot substitute for a commitment to democratization. "The philosophy we embrace is that one of the best forms of aid is American expertise derived from the American experience," says Michael Miklaucic, of the International Law Institute, who planned the two-week visit. "But there isn't a track record to show how much influence it can have." And, he concedes, the Middle East is "getting mixed signals" from Washington.

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