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Listen To Arab Voices

By Marina Ottaway
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A23

The third Arab Human Development Report, finally released by the U.N. Development Program after a lengthy controversy, should be required reading for Bush administration officials and for anyone interested in promoting Middle East democracy. The report reveals a complete acceptance of democratic principles and a complete mistrust of the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy. This mixed message is at the heart of the conundrum the United States faces in pursuing a policy of political change in the Mideast.

The report, authored by a group of prominent Arab intellectuals (many of whom embraced Arab nationalism and Arab socialism in the past), represents an unambiguous embrace of liberal democratic ideals. There are no "buts" and "ifs" in the report, no claim that Arab countries need to develop their own form of democracy in keeping with the cultural specificity and conditions of the region. There is no claim that each country must be allowed to proceed toward democracy at its own pace and in its own time, or that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be settled first. On the contrary, the report addresses and rebuts all such claims, concluding instead that liberal democratic values are not Western but universal, and that change must come now.

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This part of the report will be music to the Bush administration's ears, but it will be soured by the strident anti-Americanism of other sections. The report is critical of U.S. policies, denouncing the occupation of Iraq and the unstinting support for Israel as setbacks for Arab human development. Furthermore, the report exudes mistrust and hostility toward the Bush administration, doubting the sincerity of its commitment to democratization in the Arab world.

The strong criticism of the United States and Israel delayed the publication of the report for more than six months. Arab governments also come in for pointed criticism in the report, but concern about their reaction was not the cause of the delay. Rather, fearful of adding more fuel to the fire of U.S. criticism of the United Nations, the U.N. Development Program wavered and even considered having the report released not under the U.N. imprint but under that of a nongovernmental organization, or of its authors.

The report will undoubtedly be criticized by some U.S. officials, who will focus on its negative assessment of American policies. But, like the 2002 and 2003 reports, the new document will also be seized on by the Bush administration as proof that Arabs are embracing democracy and that U.S. policy in the region is helping further the will of the people, not imposing an alien system on the Arab world. It is a foregone conclusion that President Bush and administration officials will quote freely from the report in their speeches. And, as they have done in the past, the report's authors and many liberal intellectuals will denounce such references as a cynical exploitation of Arab aspirations by a government that, in their eyes, has shown no regard for Arab interests.

Despite its hostility to U.S. policy, the report admits that pressure from the outside, particularly from Washington, may help the cause of political change in the Middle East. The authors do not believe that the United States shares the Arab goal of a true political, cultural and economic renaissance leading to human development in its fullest meaning -- epanouissement is the curious term used in the report. They believe that the Bush administration has narrow goals: getting rid of particularly offensive and hostile regimes and cajoling old authoritarian allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to introduce some reforms to make themselves more presentable. But even such limited goals, the authors grudgingly admit, could help the process of change in the Middle East.

It is important that the Bush administration recognize this reluctant admission that something good could come from U.S. policy as a real change on the part of Arab reformers, and that it not jeopardize chances for cooperation by attacking the report and punishing the U.N. Development Program for allowing its publication. The United States has been able to get rid of Saddam Hussein on its own, and it may be able to intimidate Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. But to build democracy, it must work with Arab reformers, even if they remain hostile and suspicious. Political reform pushed by Washington is second best for these Arab reformers; working with Arab reformers who criticize the United States as harshly as their own government is second best for the Bush administration. It is probably as good as it is going to get for both sides in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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