The Bush administration announced an ambitious program to encourage fundamental economic, political and educational changes in the Arab countries of the Middle East yesterday, steps that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said are critical to achieving U.S. objectives in the region.
In a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Powell outlined what he called a U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative that he said would attempt to move Arab societies out of their current state of economic stagnation, closed and rigid political systems and severely limited educational opportunities, especially for women.
Powell said that U.S. policy in the Middle East has been preoccupied by "winning the war on terrorism, disarming Iraq and bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end," and that the administration remains committed to achieving those goals.
"At the same time," he added, "it has become increasingly clear that we must broaden our approach to the region if we are to achieve success. In particular, we must give sustained and energetic attention to economic, political and educational reform."
As described by Powell and senior State Department officials, the initiative will begin modestly with $29 million that is already available from a supplemental appropriation approved earlier by Congress. An official said the administration will ask for a "significant" although still unspecified increase in the program for the next fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
"We are very conscious of how hard this is to do," the official said. He described the initiative as a "framework" and "a step in the direction of making clear this is an important part of our agenda. In a sense, we're responding to challenges that people in the region are highlighting."
In his speech, Powell said steps that could be taken under the initiative include direct investments in promising companies in Arab countries, technical assistance to Arab governments seeking membership in the World Trade Organization, training for aspiring political candidates, providing scholarships to keep girls in school and other measures to expand literacy among women.
Powell also provided a tour of the bleak economic, political and educational landscape in many of the Arab nations of the Middle East. "Any approach to the Middle East that ignores its political, economic and educational underdevelopment will be built on sand," he said.
Powell said 14 million Arab adults are unemployed and that 50 million more Arab young people will enter the job market over the next eight years, but that Arab economies, which account for only 1 percent of the world's non-oil exports, are not growing fast enough to produce the jobs they will need.
"A shortage of economic opportunities is a ticket to despair," Powell said. "Combined with rigid political systems, it is a dangerous brew indeed."
Despite some progress in some countries, "too many Middle Easterners are ruled by closed political systems," Powell said. "Too many governments curb the institutions of civil society as a threat, rather than welcome them as the basis for a free, dynamic and hopeful society."
As for educational opportunities, Powell said that 10 million school-age Arab children do not attend school and 65 million of their parents cannot read or write. He said only 1 percent of Arabs have access to a computer, and that only half of the people with such access are connected to the Internet.
"There is a constant theme running through these challenges, and that is the marginalization of women," Powell said. "More than half of the Arab world's women are illiterate. They suffer more than men from unemployment and lack of economic opportunity. Women also make up a smaller proportion of members of parliament in Arab countries than in any other region of the world.
"Until the countries of the Middle East unleash the abilities and potential of their women, they will not build a future of hope."
Senior State Department officials emphasized that the initiative's ambitious goals will not be easy to achieve. "It's not going to happen overnight," one said. But they also said that there will be ways to measure the impact of the initiative such as growth in the literacy rate of Arab girls and women or an increase in the number of books -- currently only about 330 -- that are translated into Arabic each year.