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Arabs Say U.S. Rhetoric Rings Hollow

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 22, 2005; Page A01

AMMAN, Jordan, Jan. 21 -- President Bush's inaugural address placing the fostering of democratic freedoms around the world at the center of U.S. foreign policy drew a skeptical reaction Friday in the Arab world, where analysts questioned whether the rhetoric of the speech was consistent with the administration's actions in the Middle East.

With Arab countries mostly shuttered for a four-day Islamic holiday that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, there was little public reaction to Bush's address. Many newspapers have not published for days, and government offices closed earlier than usual this week.

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In interviews, however, a number of political analysts and commentators commended the values outlined in Bush's speech, in which he proclaimed that the United States "will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation, the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." But they said the words belied the fact that the United States supports several authoritarian governments in the Middle East and would ring hollow to the many Arabs who perceive U.S. policy in the oil-rich region as motivated by financial concerns and support for Israel.

Although the president did not mention the daily violence in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, the U.S. role in those conflicts frequently spurs Arabs to question American credibility regarding the goals Bush outlined in his address. Several writers called the speech "messianic" in tone and language and potentially harmful to fledgling reform movements across the region.

"It's scary stuff, so sweeping and overarching you don't know what to make of it," said Sadiq Azm, a Syrian writer and reform advocate. "He's saying that what's good for America is good for everyone else. We are used to this kind of bombast from our Arab leaders. But it's been a long time since I've heard it in English."

Bush's speech came as some Middle Eastern governments -- most of them kingdoms, emirates and Arab republics ruled by unelected leaders -- are considering how to balance the pressure to implement the kinds of reforms called for by the United States with their desire to maintain a firm grip on power. Many are emphasizing economic reforms to relieve domestic pressures caused by rising unemployment but moving cautiously -- if at all -- on political changes.

Saudi Arabia plans to hold limited municipal elections next month that will serve as a test case for what voting might mean for the ruling Saud family, which founded the kingdom more than 70 years ago. Syria and Jordan have adopted free-market changes in the past year while maintaining a tight hold on political dissent. A number of Persian Gulf states have allowed greater public displays of political opinion, including free elections for local councils in Bahrain.

But the pace of change has been glacial, and many frustrated reformers say the apparent disarray of the U.S. project in Iraq has given autocratic governments an excuse to forgo even the most modest political reforms. Offering a clean-government alternative to administrations rife with corruption, Islamic parties are surging in popularity, a trend that deeply frightens many secular Arabs and dampens their enthusiasm for free elections.

Many Arabs, including some involved in democratic reform movements, also say the U.S. record of alliances in the Middle East is at odds with Bush's agenda. The United States supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s during Iraq's long war with Iran. The Bush administration has applied steady pressure on largely resourceless Syria, including economic sanctions for its military presence in Lebanon, while leaving alone the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, which sits atop a quarter of world's petroleum reserves.

"What he said is great, and we completely agree," said Abdulaziz Alsebail, a professor of modern literature at King Saud University in Riyadh and part of a reform movement in Saudi Arabia that is nudging the ruling family toward allowing more public participation in politics. "But the question is: How can you impose freedom? Is military intervention the right way to do it? I don't think it's been a very successful attempt at all."

Some analysts welcomed what they saw as a renewed commitment to diplomacy in Bush's speech. But others said the rhetoric, while stirring, failed because it lacked specifics of how the U.S. goals of political freedom would be reached.

"Are we going to see more military intervention, or are we talking about something like a Marshall Plan?" said Mohamed Alayyan, publisher of the al-Ghad daily newspaper in Amman. "To achieve this objective, the perception of the people in the Middle East must be changed, especially regarding the Palestinian dilemma and the treatment of prisoners of war. You cannot forget the effect Abu Ghraib had on American credibility here."

Azm called Bush's language "Churchillian, but at a time without an adversary as serious as the Nazi regime." He said the speech would likely alarm governments such as Syria's, already fearful of U.S. military intervention, as well as the reform movement that has been pushing Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow for more open government.

"People will see in this the old civilizing mission, the old colonialism," Azm said. "He has adopted the reformers' agenda, but in such a messianic way that even we are not ready to go that far."

Several analysts and activists said Bush's assertion that the United States would be encouraging reform in other governments "by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people" would be best served by brokering an equitable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A number of governments in the region operate under decades-old emergency laws, which Syria's government justifies by Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights. The laws give the military and domestic security services broad powers to arrest political dissidents, authority that might vanish if the two countries were to achieve peace.

"The best way to begin any reform is to solve this problem," said Adib Dahdouh, a Christian lawyer in Damascus who is part of a movement that advocates the gradual implementation of a free press, institutional reform and open parliamentary elections.


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