U.S. firm on democratic reform in Middle East, USAID chief says
Regional-USA, Politics, 4/26/2005
The Bush administration is firmly committed to fostering democracy in the Arab Middle East, even though the emerging democracies might well have a strongly anti-American tilt in the short run, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development says.
Andrew Natsios took that position in a talk April 22 at the sixth annual conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), which focused on the relationship between democracy and development.
Selection of the top development official as a keynote speaker symbolized an evolution in emphasis for the group, which in the past has devoted much of its energy to refuting the argument that democracy is simply unachievable in the Muslim world.
With that position demolished by recent developments in Iraq and elsewhere in the view of many democracy advocates, CSID turned its attention at the 2005 conference to the relationship between democracy and development.
In his speech, Natsios shared the view that, although some may have seen democracy as "an alien imposition on the Muslim world," recent events have proven otherwise.
Referring to parliamentary elections in Iraq in January, he said, "We may be looking back at this moment as a truly transformative event, the first in a series of elections that open the way to a new future for the region."
The example of Iraq, he said, "was the inspiration of the multi-ethnic uprising in Lebanon against the Syrian-backed regime.Ê This has struck a further blow against one of the Middle East's most recalcitrant autocracies and opened space for authentic Lebanese voices to be heard."
Although some have portrayed Islam as the obstacle to the spread of democracy, Natsios said, he believes that "the fundamental problem isn't religion, it is autocratic governments led in many instances by militantly secular figures."
Turning to his concern about potential problems between the United States and the very democracies it seeks to foster, Natsios said, the future is "full of promise É (but) not without peril. It may well be the end of autocracy in the Middle East will put in place democracies with a distinctly anti-American taint.
"The people of the Middle East who will be empowered by democracy have been steeped in anti-Americanism that will not magically evaporate. Expect them to vent long-standing frustrations to which American foreign policy in the past admittedly may have contributed," he added.
Natsios said this raised the question of why the United States would wish to trade the security of the status quo and alliances with friendly autocratic governments for the uncertainties of the democratic experiment.
That question "goes to the heart of this administration's foreign policy and its É strategy to further democracy around the world," he said. "The anti-Americanism we are talking about, as disconcerting and problematic as it is, is likely to be short-term. History shows, longer term, the power of shared democratic values to defuse conflict and cement right-minded countries together."
With massive youth unemployment in the region creating "a demographic time bomb" and pressures building toward a social explosion, "Those who would seek security in autocracy are buying very short-lived calm at best," Natsios said.
Declaring that the birth of new democracies in the Middle East could usher in a wholly new relationship with the United States, Natsios said, "The Palestine of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas is not the Palestine of [the late President Yasser] Arafat, and will not be received the same way. Those who cling to the status quo in the Middle East seriously underestimate the moderating power of democracy."
The manner in which potential new governments harmonize the duties of religion with the requirements of democracy is critical not only for U.S. national security but for "the prospect for peace in this century and the renewal of Islamic culture," he said.
With respect to Iraq in particular, Natsios said, "A law that reflects basic Muslim values is to be anticipated and welcomed under the new constitution as representing the authentic voice of the Iraqi people that Ba'athist ideology suppressed."
He said the notion that the Shi'as of Iraq are taking orders from Tehran is ludicrous. "Anybody who knows both countries knows that even the people in Iran don't take orders from Tehran," he declared.
Citing extensive USAID efforts to help rehabilitate Iraq's schools, reform its government personnel structure and rebuild financial, banking and budgeting systems, Natsios said, "Our commitment to the Iraqi people must continue as our first priority. "
"The economic isolation that existed under Saddam is ending and we must smooth the country's transition back into the global marketplace so it can take full advantage of the opportunities it offers," he added.
Addressing the theme of democracy and development in his conference-opening remarks, CSID President Radwan Masmoudi said there is no doubt that economic and political development "complement each other, and that one cannot take place without the other."
"Both remain elusive in much of the Arab world and the Muslim world, and Arabs and Muslims have a lot of catching up to do," he said.
Interviewed between conference sessions, he said recent developments have created "a moment of opportunity and great hope and aspiration. You can feel it in the air wherever you go in the Arab world. People are finally excited about having an opportunity to gain real reforms in the regimes and real democracy."
Masmoudi expressed pleasure at "a huge change in U.S. foreign policy" as "policymakers have realized that we have been down the wrong path in supporting oppressive regimes under the theory that this leads to stability."
"It hasn't led to stability, it hasn't led to economic development and it hasn't led to improvement in education in the Arab world," he said.Ê "It has led to exactly the opposite, and the Arab world is the most unstable region in the world because you have oppressive regimes that are at war with their own people."
Echoing views of other conference participants, Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, stressed that democracy can be aided, but not imposed, from outside.
"Of course it's going to take international support and international solidarity, but ultimately democracy can only happen if it comes from within and people take responsibility for their own futures," Gershman said.
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