The Greater Middle East Initiative

Few policy initiatives have provoked as much response before they were even finalized as Washington’s Greater Middle East Initiative. President Pervez Musharraf has already rejected it. In Pakistan there are no supporters of this initiative, many view it as a crude election gimmick.

This initiative, focusing on political, economic and educational reform, was born out of the US’s post-Sept. 11 rethink on the Middle East, an offshoot of its anti-terrorism strategy. Introducing it a State Department official told the Washington Post, “There is a belief that (Helsinki) contributed to bringing Europe together and played a significant role in tearing down the Soviet Union. In the same way, this idea would tear down the attractiveness of (Islamic) extremism.” US officials are busy clarifying their position. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman has been touring the region and is now in Europe, and his government hopes to get support for the initiative during this summer’s G-8, NATO and EU summits.

It is the third US initiative since Sept. 11. On Dec. 12, 2002 at the Heritage Foundation Secretary of State Collin Powell had spoken of a US-Middle East Partnership Initiative. He said, “I am announcing today an initiative that places the US firmly on the side of change, on the side of reform and on the side of a modern future for the Middle East, on the side of hope. It is a bridge between the US and the Middle East, between our government and our people, an initiative that spans the hope gap with energy ideas and funding.”

The US had announced its first comprehensive reform program. Powell recalled seven months after Sept. 11 that the US began working on this effort to support reform. Clearly it was a partnership effort taking along the governments and the people of the region. In November 2003 the US president said it was a “forward strategy of freedom in Middle East.”

The Arab world welcomed it as a partnership effort for facilitating reform. Indeed since Sept. 11 in countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan a political opening-up had begun. The first-ever Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) produced by the UNDP mid-2002 and authored by Arab intellectuals argued that the root cause for Arab underdevelopment was threefold: A deficit of freedom, a deficit of women empowerment and a deficit of knowledge.

In February 2003 the US also announced the initiation of a process aimed at ultimately leading to a US-Middle East Free Trade Area. Introducing this initiative Bush said the “leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater participation, economic openness and free trade.”

Clearly partnership was the key to these initiatives. So why the sudden turnaround? How did the initiative suddenly become a unilateral matter, to be imposed on the Arabs?

There have been swift reactions from numerous heads of state, the UN, NATO, the EU, the Arab League and opinion-makers worldwide to the Feb. 9 Washington Post story that blew the lid off the proposed initiative. Few signaled unqualified support. Most believe that drawing up any regional initiative without consulting with the concerned countries and seeking their partnership is unacceptable.

The Arab countries and Pakistan have also rejected the initiative.

They have cited any number of reasons: Their Islamic identity, opposition to foreign intervention, Arab ways, their unique environment, and the Palestinian dispute. Many of these reasons won’t wash. Islam, cultural identity and the unresolved Palestinian question are no deterrents to the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in the region. The real problem lies in US unilateralism. There are two problems linked to this approach. First, it is seen as undermining the sovereignty of states already feeling the heat of an interventionist US which remains highly unpredictable in its “treatment” of the region after the invasion of Iraq. Secondly, given the US’s track record on subverting democracy and democratic forces in the region, its motives as a promoter of democracy must remain suspect.

Washington must go back to a partnership approach, facilitating locally identified and reasonably paced reforms. Reforms in the Middle East are a key policy item for European and North American nations, as they are for the people of the region. Yet such efforts are also suspect and are viewed by many as deflecting pressure from Israeli atrocities and rejectionist positions on Palestine.

Along with reform within the Middle East, the US needs to reform its own approach. It must reverse its policy of accepting only such “democratic” setups in the region that favors US interests.

It has shown an ability to do it in Pakistan and Turkey. Similarly the US administration must develop the intellectual and political robustness to engage with nationalist leadership in the region that would inevitably be thrown up through genuine political reform.

Similarly American policy-makers must recognize that Americans have a moral responsibility to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Internal reform and consolidation will strengthen, not dilute, the resolve to seek a just solution to the Palestinian cause.

The initiative is fortunately still work-in-progress. This leaves room for change. Perhaps as a guideline toward strategic course correction in the Middle East it is not totally useless, but as a global initiative it is deeply unwise.