When most Americans think about the Middle East it is usually related to oil, Israel, the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the possibility of war against Iraq, or the fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration now wants to broaden its approach to the region by putting an emphasis on political, economic and educational reform throughout the Arab world, especially for women in the region.
Secretary of State Colin Powell this week formally announced the plan, called "The U.S.- Middle East Partnership Initiative: Building Hope for the Years Ahead," in a speech delivered at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Powell noted the recent spread of democracy and free markets in the world "has largely left the Middle East behind."
Powell cited statistics from the 2002 Arab Human Development Report (issued by the UN) showing 14 million Arab adults lack the job skills to put food on their tables and that 50 million more Arab young people will enter the job market in the coming decade. Ten million school-age children are not in classrooms and some 65 million of their parents cannot read or write.
"A shortage of economic opportunities is a ticket to despair," Powell said. "We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East, or that there is any region of the world that cannot support democracy."
"It is time to lay a firm foundation of hope," Powell said, prefacing the outlines of the proposal.
Some of the initiatives cited by the State Department include educational programs to improve the lives of girls and women through literacy training and scholarships to stay in school and connecting more schools to the Internet. Enterprise funds will be established with private sector management to provide capital and technical assistance to entrepreneurs and micro businesses and technical assistance will be available to Arab countries wishing to gain membership in the World Trade Organization. Efforts to strengthen civil society will include providing help to candidates for political office and programs to increase the transparency of legal and regulatory systems, as well as support for Non-governmental organizations and independent media.
This all sounds good and feels right; but it will clearly be an uphill struggle. All too few Arab leaders have shown more than passing interest in the types of programs the Bush administration says it's interested in promoting. Certainly there are promising exceptions like Jordan and Morocco. But reform, democratization and transparency are not normally associated with governments in the Arab Middle East. One small but telling example of the region's reluctance to open itself to the outside world: the Arab world, on an annual basis, translates only 330 books into Arabic. By comparison, that's one-fifth as many books which get translated into Greek, according to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report.
Secretary Powell cautioned his audience that "We should be realistic about the obstacles on the road ahead, about the time it will take to see real change take root, and about the limited role that outsiders can play. ... But we should also avoid resigning ourselves to low expectations."
Part of what's driving the initiative, says one senior official, is that in the past "we didn't knit together all of the different aspects of our assistance programs (more than a billion dollars annually), all of the tools we have at our disposal."
Another motivation, central to the thinking of many senior officials in the Bush administration, relates to terrorists and terrorism finding refuge in these Arab societies. Powell spoke about the thousands killed during the 9/11 attacks "at the hands of terrorists born and radicalized there."
While American diplomats will continue to keep oil, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iraq on the front burner, these issues have been joined by new efforts to openly advocate reform and democratic values in a region often resistant to them. Or, as Secretary Powell put it, "we are adding hope to the U.S.-Middle East agenda."
By Charles M. Wolfson