The Bush administration has launched an ambitious bid to promote democracy in the "greater Middle East" that will adapt a model used to press for freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Senior White House and State Department officials have begun talks with key European allies about a master plan to be put forward this summer at summits of the Group of Eight nations, NATO allies and the European Union, U.S. officials say. With international backing, the United States then hopes to win commitments of action from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries.
"It's a sweeping change in the way we approach the Middle East," said a senior State Department official. "We hope to roll out some of the principles for reform in talks with the Europeans over the next few weeks, with specific ideas of how to support them."
Details are still being crafted. But the initiative, scheduled to be announced at the G-8 summit hosted by President Bush at Sea Island, Ga., in June, would call for Arab and South Asian governments to adopt major political reforms, be held accountable on human rights -- particularly women's empowerment -- and introduce economic reforms, U.S. and European officials said.
As incentives for the targeted countries to cooperate, Western nations would offer to expand political engagement, increase aid, facilitate membership in the World Trade Organization and foster security arrangements, possibly some equivalent of the Partnership for Peace with former Eastern Bloc countries.
Vice President Cheney first hinted at the initiative last month in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. "Our forward strategy for freedom commits us to support those who work and sacrifice for reform across the greater Middle East," he said. "We call upon our democratic friends and allies everywhere, and in Europe in particular, to join us in this effort."
The U.S. approach is loosely modeled on the 1975 Helsinki accords signed by 35 nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union and almost all European countries.
The pact was designed to recognize disputed post-World War II borders and establish a mechanism for settling other disagreements. But human rights and fundamental freedoms became key parts of the treaty, giving the West leverage to promote and protect dissident groups in the Soviet bloc and urge greater freedoms for its residents.
Many experts now regard Helsinki as one of the most influential international pacts signed after World War II, and conservatives say it sped the demise of Eastern Bloc communism.
"There is a belief that [Helsinki] contributed to bringing Europe together and played a significant role in tearing down the Soviet Union," a State Department official said. "In the same way, this idea would tear down the attractiveness of [Islamic] extremism."
Unlike Helsinki, however, the administration's "Greater Middle East Initiative" seeks to avoid creating committees and structures to strictly monitor progress and issue report cards, U.S. officials say. It also seeks to avoid appearing to dictate to the Islamic world.
"The idea is not to come out with proposals that say, 'This is how the West thinks you guys should live,' " a senior administration official said. "This can't be seen as telling these guys what to do. That won't work. It is instead about saying, 'We hear voices in the greater Middle East region who want democracy and reform, and here are the things we can do to support them.' "
At each of the three summits in June, the United States would like allies to agree on principles of political, economic and security change -- many outlined by the Arabs themselves in two U.N. Development Program reports -- and ways to enact reforms. The G-8, NATO and U.S.-European Union would each focus on the issues most relevant to its goals. The review process would then be built into subsequent annual summits of the three alliances, U.S. officials say.
"The key to all of this is to get the [Muslim] countries in question to feel ownership in this process," a Danish diplomat said. The Danish and Canadian governments have done serious work on the issue and are coming up with their own draft proposals, U.S. and European officials say.
The administration's general goal is to put meat on the bones of Bush's call for political change throughout the Islamic world, outlined in two speeches last fall at the National Endowment for Democracy and in London, U.S. officials say.
The administration had originally pledged that ousting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and creating a Palestinian state would serve as catalysts for democracy. But now that the Arab-Israeli peace process is deadlocked and Iraq's political transition is in trouble, the United States is effectively leapfrogging both to generate political change in the region, U.S. and European officials say.
The Greater Middle East Initiative "projects the administration as looking beyond immediate trouble spots to institutionalize a policy of change for the region," said Shibley Telhami, a Brookings Institution fellow who consulted with the administration on the proposal.
European governments generally support the idea, but they have varying degrees of skepticism about whether a Helsinki-like approach will work in the Middle East, U.S. and European officials say. Key allies are concerned that any initiative will be vulnerable because of sharp differences between the Middle East and the former East Bloc. Moreover, Arab countries may find political change difficult, and are more likely to be susceptible to Islamic movements, as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict goes unresolved.
U.S. officials counter that the initiative is not a substitute. "We think progress on it will help the peace process, although some of the Europeans are not convinced," said the senior State Department official.
"We also expect to hear warnings of Islam emerging stronger in the region if countries democratize," he added. "But we recognize the danger of too rapid democratization. We want to see steady progress over a period of time -- and we want to build in checks in the system."
The European Union is also cautious because of its long-standing dialogue with Arab nations on the Mediterranean, which has had some success in reforming education and health systems but marginal impact on politics.
"We welcome the goal, but we want to see how the Americans plan to get there," a European envoy said. "We've been trying for a while, and efforts at modernization don't easily seep through to politics."
A well-placed U.S. official said European allies are concerned about "being tarred with the U.S. brush if they cooperate" and fear the U.S. initiative would become a "black hole that would suck everything else into it." But he said the United States is trying to reassure them that "there's work enough for everyone."
Since late last year, the administration engaged in an increasing flurry of discussions with both European and Islamic governments. This month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discussed the initiative with the new NATO chief as well as the French and Turkish foreign ministers. Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones held talks with European Union envoys in Dublin, where the U.S.-European Union summit will be held in June, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has briefed other European officials, U.S. sources say.
The concept of promoting a "Middle East Helsinki" has long been discussed in U.S. and European think tanks, but the administration's idea has received a huge boost in recent weeks. Yesterday, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, gave a speech in Munich calling on NATO to establish a partnership plan that would help Middle East militaries with tasks such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism, military reform and civilian control of the military.
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), a Democratic presidential candidate, said last month that as president he would establish a Helsinki-type organization in the Middle East that would "assist with civil society and political party development, monitor elections and manage crises."