Getting the Greater Middle East Initiative Right

March 3, 2004

Getting the Greater Middle East Initiative Right

The Bush Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative has already drawn criticism from those who have the most to lose if the U.

The Bush Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative has already drawn criticism from those who have the most to lose if the U.S. indeed sticks to this 40-plus year transformational strategy. Not surprisingly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia lead the opposition in the region. France is the naysayer in Europe, while Germany is interested in contributing to what will be a transatlantic initiative.

The Democrats might have a political interest in picking apart this initiative, but their own strategists are some of the key developers of this bipartisan vision. Moreover, how can they oppose an initiative that puts democracy, freedom and shared universal values at the core of U.S. foreign policy?

At the same time, it is terribly patronizing for the U.S. to develop an initiative of this scale without consulting any Muslim countries in advance. Yes, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman is visiting the region this week, but many, including moderate, pro-American forces, have already decided that this is a neo-colonialist initiative. After all, the U.S. hopes that, after two generations of transformation, the region will be inhabited by peaceful, democratic, pro-Western, fluently English speaking people who are not anti-Semitic and not anti-American.

The Bush administration hopes that at the June G-8 summit there will be a common position developed on the greater Middle East. But given the mood in the Muslim world, does anyone seriously believe that any idea promoted by this set of countries will have any traction in the region? It will more likely seem to be a new form of economic and cultural hegemony in the making.

Moreover, as a senior Jordanian official recently said at a workshop on radical Islamist ideology, "this whole initiative of democratic and economic development in the greater Middle East seems like a way out of dealing with the heart of the matter: unless the U.S. helps resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, whatever else it does in the region will backfire and will be perceived as insincere." Anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant of the region's realities.

America's inability to conduct effective public diplomacy and speak with nuance may also hurt its regional allies, such as Turkey.  The U.S. has embraced its NATO partner Turkey as its regional Muslim ally that can spearhead the greater Middle East initiative. Turkey is indeed a success case that proves that democracy, Islam, modernity and women's rights can coexist. The ruling party's name alone signals the priorities for the government - Justice and Development Party. Yet, any U.S. embrace of the positive initiatives the Turkish government has already undertaken on its own by urging the Muslim world to "stop blaming others and start fixing our homes" risk being discredited by opponents as American-backed propaganda. The last thing the U.S. should want is to turn Turkey's image into that of America's satellite in the region.

The U.S. also needs to spell out just who is included in the greater Middle East initiative. Are we talking about the Muslim countries from North Africa to Afghanistan? And if so, how far will the U.S. go in supporting the Muslim region's development? As one Muslim theologian recently asked me, "will the U.S. really pour money and resources into our region and thus help the Islamic civilization rise again to challenge the U.S.?"

If it is not just a Muslim-focused initiative, why is the U.S. not loudly pointing to the success of the Georgian democratic forces that led to a peaceful and democratic revolution in November? Most of the leadership of the revolution was U.S.-educated - trained by the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute - and for many years served as a democratic opposition to the government. Georgia's new President Mikheil Saakashvili was in Washington last week; during his comments he frequently repeated that "Georgia shares the same values as the U.S." While this post-Soviet country is almost a model case for what the U.S. wants to see in the greater Middle East, why does the Bush administration not embrace it as part of the greater Middle East vision?

Whether the Bush administration likes it or not, the developments in Georgia already have had a huge impact on American ability to act upon the "forward strategy of freedom" in the greater Middle East. Many authoritarian and corrupt leaders across the former Soviet Union and the Middle East learned some important lessons: a strong civil society, free media and a peaceful democratic opposition can create the necessary momentum to oust them from power. Therefore, such groups need to be crushed. Moreover, as these people and organizations are educated and funded by U.S. organizations such as the Soros Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy, such institutes should accordingly not be allowed to operate.

Opposition forces also learned important lessons: it is not sufficient to just be against the government; to receive international support they need to be peaceful and democratic and not resort to violence. The freedom movement is catching on-it started in Serbia with the students, moved to Georgia and is now heading to Belarus and Ukraine. Sooner or later it will spread into the greater Middle East as well-provided the U.S. does not make major mistakes along the way.

What are some initial issues to consider?

First, the key to acceptance of the greater Middle East Initiative is ownership. The people of the region need to be engaged immediately and not be presented with a blueprint developed by the US-EU alliance. While the U.S. is focusing on the G8, US-EU and the NATO summits of June, the Muslim countries are more interested in international meetings where they are participating-mainly the OIC Foreign Ministerial meeting in June and the OIC-EU summit in the fall, both to be held in Turkey. With proper groundwork, the U.S. may be able to get itself invited to the OIC-EU summit (as an observer) and work through the details of the greater Middle East initiative then-in a better setting for engaging the region.

Second, to gain local acceptance, the U.S. needs to develop a much closer dialogue with the governmental and civil society leaderships of the region. It is not just better packaging. We need to show to the "few good men" who can make a difference in their closed regimes that the U.S. is fully aware of the challenges they face and will work with them in coming up with realistic strategies. This also means fully acknowledging the facts that we are in a war of ideologies and those using radical Islamist ideology are trying to strike wherever and whenever they can. Telling our friends and allies to open up their systems without providing them with the necessary safety net is not the best strategy.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. needs to put serious money into the region to see real transformation. Hungry and hopeless people cannot share the same values and goals of those living in peace and comfort. Creating jobs and stable environments for people can be more important for the American democracy-building effort in this region than training groups in ways to oppose their brutal governments. If the primary focus is on economic development, then these regimes will also be less reluctant to open up.


Zeyno Baran is the Director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center.