The Bush administration's plan to promote democracy in the Middle East -- the centerpiece of its agenda at this week's summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations -- has been accepted by Europeans and Arabs only reluctantly, and some administration officials fear that the program's goals have been undermined to ensure its acceptance at the summit.
White House officials have said the plan, which is intended to unite all of the administration's Middle Eastern initiatives under a common theme, grew out of a speech by President Bush last year, saying the United States was wrong to support autocratic governments in a search for Middle East "stability."
But others in the administration said the G-8 initiative was driven primarily by White House officials who are not experts on the Middle East. In their account, those officials focused on either trying to bridge gaps between the Europeans and the Americans on key issues or on trying to ensure a "deliverable" at the summit that would obscure the turmoil in Iraq and the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The G-8 leaders will formally adopt the plan at the conclusion of the summit, which will be held in Sea Island, Ga., Tuesday through Thursday. A draft version circulating among summiteers said it would include creating a "forum for the future" to provide a "ministerial framework for our ongoing dialogue." It would also form a democracy assistance group that would coordinate efforts by individual nations from outside the region, begin an initiative to lend money to small businesses, and establish a task force on changing the investment climate.
Bush administration officials said the embrace of Middle Eastern democracy by the world's most powerful economies is a signal achievement. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, briefing reporters here Monday, suggested that the plan, the "Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative," will help counter extremism in the region responsible for terrorist attacks.
But others -- Europeans, Arabs and some U.S. officials -- said the rhetoric is not backed up by money or new ideas. Some administration officials said they feared that $200 million now dedicated by the administration to nascent and low-key efforts to promote reform will be diverted to high-profile talkathons that shift the focus away from substance and toward process.
In a report Monday on the G-8 plan titled "Imperiled at Birth," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said, "There are few indications [the administration] is prepared to put established relations with authoritarian but cooperative Middle Eastern states at risk and pin its future on civil society and political opposition movements."
The report added that "reformers throughout the region are hard pressed to say kinder things about the U.S. initiative than that the message -- the need for more democracy -- should not be disregarded because the messenger, especially in the post-Iraq war world, is suspect."
Europeans and Arabs said they believe the administration has scaled back the initiative in its struggle to win approval. The ICG report said the G-8 document is a "considerable climb down from the lofty ambitions proclaimed in the President's November 2003 speech, and a drastic narrowing even of the initial goals suggested" in earlier drafts.
"That is absolutely false," a senior White House official said. "I can't see how anyone could say there is a scaling back."
As for the made-in-America imprint, White House officials said the G-8 endorsement will help erase that. They also said the skepticism toward the plan is more the result of built-in prejudices than of any administration failings.
"You are getting spin from the Europeans and the Arabs," a White House official said Monday. "There is substantial resistance to the notion of the democratization of the Arab world. It comes partly from Arab rulers who don't want to democratize, and partly from Europeans who don't think that Middle Easterners and Arabs are really ready for democracy. It's an incredibly condescending viewpoint."
European officials said the Americans were the ones who adopted a condescending attitude, appearing to lecture toward Arabs and not appreciating Europe's long-running efforts to promote reform and modernization in the Middle East.
In an effort to demonstrate engagement with Arabs on the issues, Bush invited the leaders of a number of Islamic countries to attend a lunch Wednesday with G-8 leaders, at their own expense. But leaders of some key nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco, turned down the invitation, and Qatar was purposely snubbed because of administration anger at al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war. Rice cited scheduling issues as the reason Morocco and Egypt -- one of the effort's harshest critics -- will not appear.
"We will continue to have good discussions with the Saudis and with the Egyptians, as well as other countries in the Middle East," she said.
White House officials point to a succession of statements from the region, such as a declaration by the Arab League on reform and modernization last month, as evidence that there is ongoing interest in democracy -- and that the administration's push has prompted a response. The draft statement for the G-8 quotes liberally from these statements, which also included a conference held in March at the Alexandria Library in Egypt.
White House officials also say questions about the lack of money in the program are misguided. "This is a generational challenge," an official said. "No one believes that the promotion of democracy, the support for reformers in the region, is going to change the face of the region from now to January, or to a year from January. It is literally like the fight against communism."
Wright reported from Washington.