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Premature euphoria over US-style Mideast democracy?

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Amid the euphoria currently generated by moves toward democratic change in the Middle East, it is well to remember that expectations of the results may vary between Washington and the targeted countries of the region.

Bush administration policymakers, who declare democracy and freedom to be the keys to peace and reform in the region, view the opportunity to vote and elect leaders as a path to improve these people's daily lives, release them from oppressive rule, and forward the achievement of goals - including religious goals - often denied by their rulers.

The two sets of perceptions may not be incompatible, yet true democracy can be unpredictable. Skeptics who suggest that democracy cannot function in the largely Muslim Middle East are wrong, but that does not mean that entrenched regimes will willingly yield power or that elections will produce governments fully compatible with US expectations. Acceptable outcomes for the US would include advances in the position of women, broader recognition of Israel and support for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a renunciation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and a greater acceptance of the role of the US in the region.

It is probably too soon to tell how deep and lasting the current expressions of appreciation may be in Lebanon and elsewhere for Washington's pressures for democracy. The impediments to the full acceptance of America's role remain substantial.

Many of those in Middle Eastern countries who seek the ouster of autocratic regimes oppose such regimes precisely because they consider them too close to the US. Osama bin Laden's attacks on the Saudi regime are an extreme example.

It cannot be assumed that democratic regimes in the region would renounce all the policies of autocratic predecessors. A reformed Iran might still continue a nuclear program. Democratic Arab regimes, to appeal to the popular will, might be even less ready to compromise with Israel. Conservative Islamic groups, well financed and organized, could do well in elections, placing obstacles on such issues as the rule of civil law, equality for women, and rights of minorities.

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