Jordan King Hopeful on Democracy Plan
U.S. Goals Face Less Resistance, He Says
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page A22
Jordan's King Abdullah said yesterday that the Bush administration's push to promote democracy in the Middle East initially "frightened people" in the region, but now has unleashed a process that will be difficult to stop.
"The thing is, this is open debate that wasn't there three or four months ago," Abdullah said in an interview. "Once you open that door, it is very hard to shut it. So countries that are resistant to it are now having to look at the issues of reform."
Abdullah, who met Tuesday with President Bush at the White House to discuss the democracy initiative, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also raised the prospect that Iraqi elections, which the Bush administration says should take place no later than January, may need to be delayed because of a lack of security.
Elections in January will depend on "how well this government settles in and how does Iraqi society settle in" and whether the atmosphere "would be relaxed enough to have elections," Abdullah said. "We want elections to be sooner. But on the practical level . . . the situation on the ground may be so that it may need to be delayed."
Abdullah's upbeat assessment of the administration's democracy initiative came one week after that initiative was embraced somewhat reluctantly by other nations that attended the Group of Eight summit on Sea Island, Ga. With the administration's continued occupation of Iraq and its strong backing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the initiative was originally greeted with disdain after a version was leaked before the administration had consulted broadly with Arab governments.
But Abdullah and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said the Bush administration changed its approach in response to the backlash, and Arab nations came up with their own reform blueprint in response to the U.S. push.
"It's a much better atmosphere than a few months ago," Muasher said. "We came up with our own initiative. The U.S., frankly, changed its own views as to the ownership of the process. It is no longer viewed as an American-imposed agenda."
Abdullah, who attended a lunch at the G-8 summit with leaders from several other Muslim countries, said Bush helped raise the comfort level with his tone when he discussed the democracy plan.
"My impression from the Arab participants is that they were reassured and felt comfortable," Abdullah said. "I think some of them were nervous coming into it what exactly he meant."
He said: "The president gave a little leeway, saying we understand it [democracy] has to be homegrown, we understand that each country has its own set of issues, we believe that you need to address these issues, but on a case-by-case basis. . . . Everybody came away feeling very happy."
Although leaders from such high-profile countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia refused to attend the summit, "the message that will go back to other countries which were not represented will be positive," Abdullah said. "You have started a process you can't turn back."
Regarding the Middle East peace process, Abdullah said that he is becoming more comfortable with Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and that the Jordanian government is prepared to help the Palestinians re-train their security services. Bush's initial embrace of Sharon's plan -- which included an exchange of letters that appeared to eliminate some bargaining positions held by the Palestinians -- "just confused the issue," Abdullah said. "We didn't know if the 'road map' [peace plan] was alive, if the two-state solution was still survivable."
But, he said, the U.S. and Israeli governments need to confirm that the Sharon plan will involve a complete withdrawal from Gaza and that it will allow the peace process to begin again.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company