A year after the United States persuaded allies to launch a campaign to spur democratic change in the Islamic world, the Bush administration faces growing criticism for failing to follow through or get tough enough with Arab governments, according to Arab activists, Middle East analysts, human rights experts and even some on its own foreign policy staff.
Some Arab democrats say they are increasingly skeptical about U.S. promises to end six decades of tolerating the political order in the Arab world, including strong alliances with authoritarian governments such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"There is growing concern among advocates of democracy in the region that the United States may not be serious," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading democrat who has been jailed by the Egyptian government and is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. The United States is sending "mixed signals" and doing "too little, too late" on key issues, he said. Other activists who initially praised the administration's strong words say they now fear the statements were empty rhetoric.
Funding for the top U.S. democracy program -- the Middle East Partnership Initiative -- has decreased since 2003, when President Bush first urged regional reform. Funding dropped from $100 million for 2003 to $74 million for 2005, in part because of congressional cutbacks, U.S. officials say.
The Broader Middle East Initiative launched by Bush last year at the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations is also under fire from some U.S. officials involved in the effort, which has been largely limited to a meeting of Western and Arab officials at the Forum for the Future in Morocco last year. One official called it a "gigantic gabfest . . . I don't know anyone who thinks this is a serious way to promote reform."
U.S. officials say that they are working on reform behind the scenes with Arab allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to give a major speech on democracy during her trip this month to the region, possibly in Egypt.
"In order to advance the reform agenda, governments and societies must believe that we're serious and, therefore, the message has to be echoed at every level. It's most important that they hear it from the top," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State J. Scott Carpenter said yesterday. "If they don't hear it from the president or secretary of state, then there will be questions about how serious we are."
But a report issued yesterday by the Council on Foreign Relations echoes Arab concerns. Many in the Middle East "simply cannot understand why a country whose democratic institutions they so much admire provides political, economic and military aid to absolute monarchs and military dictators," it said.
The report calls on the administration to take major new steps to spur greater momentum. They include helping Arab governments develop "pathways to reform" with benchmarks that will provide a way to measure change, and transferring major U.S. democracy funding from the State Department to independent groups that have more credibility among those who distrust Washington.
The report, prepared by a bipartisan task force co-chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), urges the administration to warn the region's authoritarian governments that the failure to reform will have serious consequences. It specifically calls for Washington to use financial support as an incentive for political and economic openings. The administration should "take steps to distance itself from governments that refuse over time to recognize the political rights of their citizens," it says.
The State Department countered yesterday that the administration is trying to create diplomatic and political strategies that include concrete steps and achievable milestones. "It's important that governments in the region embrace the agenda. We don't want to be in adversarial relations," Carpenter said. "So we're trying to come up with achievable steps that will produce real reforms -- faster than most governments want but not as fast as local societies want."
The Council report warns that U.S. credibility is still deeply suspect in the region because of the United States' association with undemocratic governments and its largely unsuccessful attempts to reach out to the Arab world. "The United States has done a poor job explaining its policies in the region and spreading its message about democracy and freedom. Washington's public diplomacy strategy needs to be changed," it says.
At a news briefing on the report, project director Steven Cook said the United States is now often perceived to have a double standard on Middle East opposition groups. Washington has backed the new Lebanese coalition, as well as Egyptian democrat Ayman Nour after he was jailed, but has not spoken out on behalf of three jailed dissidents in Saudi Arabia, he said.
The council report also recommends that the administration promote education reform by forming partnerships with local schools and foundations, as well as with European and Asian organizations, to develop teacher-training programs and improve Arab education standards.
That recommendation comes as Human Rights Watch assailed Egypt yesterday for "pervasive repression" that has stifled academic freedom, censored textbooks and outlawed research on controversial issues. The group said President Hosni Mubarak's security forces target students for arbitrary arrest, long detention and harsh punishment for the "peaceful expression of political views."