Powell Preaches The Good Word To Our Arab Friends

Speaking in Washington at the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, President Bush ostensibly abandoned the long-established policy of backing undemocratic regimes that line up with Uncle Sam.

Speaking in Washington at the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, President Bush ostensibly abandoned the long-established policy of backing undemocratic regimes that line up with Uncle Sam.

Focusing on the Middle East, Bush declared, "Sixty years of Western nations executing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

Views on the speech were divided. Those who took a rosy view included Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia think-tank. He is also a controversial appointee to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace because of his fierce criticism of political Islamism and its apologists.

For Pipes, the speech was "about the most jaw-dropping repudiation of an established bipartisan policy ever made by a U.S. president."

"Not only does it break with a policy the U.S. government has pursued since first becoming a major player in the Middle East, but the speech is audacious in ambition, grounded in history, and programmatically specific," Pipes wrote in the Jerusalem Post. "It's the sort of challenge to existing ways one expects to hear from a columnist, essayist, or scholar - not from the leader of a great power."

The other view was a more skeptical one. Daniel Brumberg, an Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, commenting on the speech to the Council on Foreign Policy, noted that Bush had said, "Working democracies always need time to develop -- as did our own. We have taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice."

Those words, Brumberg said, were a loophole. "The administration can say that those countries have their own traditions; we're not going to impose this; it took us 200 years."

"It is a standard conventional American approach, which is to promote liberalization in the hope that down the road it opens the door to democratization. But in no way are we ready to push the democratization button," he said, because to do so could empower the profoundly anti-American Islamists in those countries.

Pipes concluded his commentary with, "Get ready for an interesting ride."

Four weeks after Bush's speech, the ride was underway with Powell dispatched to the Arab West - Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria - to preach the good word on building democracy and market economies, as well as coping with Islamist terrorism, the enemy of the stability required if democracy and market economies are to grow. 

Arriving in Tunisia on December 2, Powell had both praise and gentle encouragement for President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Tunisia, Powell said, "has accomplished a lot and it is for that reason that people are still expecting more to happen with respect to political reform," urging wider press freedom in a country where journalists who upset the President are tossed into jail.

Tunisia has indeed made impressive economic progress, but with no corollary improvement in its political system. Ben Ali's regime continues to be one of the most repressive in the Arab world. That did not keep Powell from inviting ben Ali to visit President Bush at the White House in February. Ben Ali, who has rendered legally recognized opposition parties impotent, won a telltale 99.4 percent of the vote when re-elected in 1999.

Powell's second stop on his brief two-day tour was Morocco, where the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights used the visit to speak out. It charged the authorities with torture and a variety of other human rights violations during the wave of arrests and trials that followed Islamist bombings on May 16. Forty-five people died in Casablanca, including 12 suicide bombers. So far, 14 people have been sentenced to death and many others give long prison sentences.

After being received by King Mohammed VI in Marrakech, the Secretary announced U.S. military aid to Morocco would be doubled and economic aid would be increased fourfold. 

Powell's last stop was a few hours in Algeria where a well-known joke goes, "Other countries have armies, but, in Algeria, the army has a country." The corrupt regime, made up of a military with business interests, cancelled elections in January 1992 to prevent Islamists - who believe in one man, one vote, one time - from winning. An insurgency followed that has cost over 100,000 lives. Villagers and security forces continue to be killed by the Islamist militants.

Powell said it was a matter of conjecture as to what might have happened had the elections not been cancelled. What the United States is interested in now is that the presidential elections next year are free, fair and transparent. The Secretary lauded Algeria's "exceptional cooperation in the war against terrorism" but went on to say, "democratic progress and economic modernization are also fundamental to the interests of Algeria and to our expanding relationship." Powell said he had a good discussion with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stands to be re-elected unless the army tires of him.

The picture that emerges from Powell's Maghrib tour is one of carrots for allies in the war on terrorism combined not with sticks to compel reform, but a vigorous shaking of rhetorical Wilsonian twigs.

After all, which is more likely to influence American policy? Having good allies in the war on terrorism who also provide some diplomatic support for Washington's attempts to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict? Or delivering barrages of criticism about undemocratic practices, crony economies and wretched human rights records at the risk of alienating them?