The Bush administration's initiative on Middle East democracy has been widely portrayed as ending with a whimper at a trio of international summits this month. Opposition from France and other European skeptics forced a watering down of the democracy initiatives by the Group of Eight and NATO; several big Arab governments, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, spurned what was left. In Washington, foreign policy "realism" is back in fashion, thanks to the trouble in Iraq: Both the Democrats around John F. Kerry and a number of powerful Republicans are saying Bush's vision of spreading democracy is a naive and even dangerous illusion.
All true -- but there's more to the story. Though Bush's mismanagement of Iraq has put his democracy advocates on the defensive, there nevertheless now exists the beginning of a broad pro-reform coalition in and outside the region. It includes a handful of people in Arab governments, but many more outside, in rapidly growing civic and human rights movements. There are European parliamentarians and policymakers in expanding numbers, especially in Germany. And in Washington, there are not only Bush's neocons but an important group of Democrats.
A lot of these people don't think much of George Bush, which is one reason why the coalition hasn't entirely coalesced. But almost all of them say that Bush's preaching on democracy over the past year, and the modest action that has come with it, has changed the terms of debate about the future of the Middle East, both in and outside the region. Bush's campaign "frightened people," King Abdullah of Jordan said in an interview here last week. "But it also allowed some of us to say that if we don't come up with our own initiative, something will be forced on us. And once you say you are going to reform, you trigger a process that you can't turn back."
Abdullah's optimism was one indication that Bush's program is likely to survive the backlash of recent months. Though the king is skeptical that Iraq will manage to hold the elections now planned for January, he is moving steadily ahead in his own country. He has appointed a committee to draw up amendments to the electoral and political party laws, orchestrate a loosening of state control over the media, create a "youth parliament," and upgrade the judicial system. His government was one of several that pushed reluctant neighbors into accepting a recent endorsement of reform by the Arab League.
Another indicator comes in the release of a paper this week by a cross section of parliamentarians and policymakers from the United States and Europe, few of them supporters of Bush but all of them ardent advocates of democratic change in the Middle East. The Americans are mostly Democrats: former Clinton administration officials such as Ronald Asmus and Kenneth Pollack and democracy advocates Michael McFaul and Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution. The Europeans come from all over: Britain, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the Czech Republic; all three of Germany's largest political parties are represented.
In essence the group's paper calls for a more muscular version of the Bush policy -- without the compromises forced by transatlantic tensions and the blow back from Iraq. While it acknowledges the need for homegrown Arab reform movements, it emphasizes that these are most likely to arise outside existing governments. It argues that the West should focus on supporting these movements while linking aid, trade and other cooperation with governments to concrete progress on reform -- particularly in those countries, such as Egypt, where the regimes are both U.S. clients and entrenched autocracies.
"The West cannot export democracy as such. At the same time, the West can and in our view, must play a critical supporting role from the outside -- as it has in democratic breakthroughs and transitions in other parts of the world," says the paper, which was developed in months of transatlantic discussions sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. "This is a generational project for which we must summon historic staying power."
If it all sounds a lot like Bush's vision, that is part of the point -- to show that there is a constituency for a Middle East democracy movement extending well beyond this White House. "What we were trying to do is demonstrate that it's possible to build a bipartisan coalition for this vision across the aisle and across the Atlantic," says Asmus. "The Bush administration has made a start. The question is will we follow up and will we come up with a long-term blueprint."
The next step is unlikely to come from an administration preoccupied with Iraq and the upcoming election or from Arab governments. Progress on Middle East democracy will depend on independent movements seizing on the space Bush has opened and widening it. The German Marshall coalition aims its paper at similar groups of activists and intellectuals in the Arab world, some of which have produced their own groundbreaking manifestos in recent months. Taken together, the voices of these pro-democracy networks are still drowned out by the naysayers and skeptics, in the region and even in Washington. But time, and history, are probably on their side.