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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 February, 2004, 12:26 GMT
Mid-East 'democracy' plan raises questions
by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

A plan by President Bush to make a ringing declaration about democracy in the Middle East at the G8 summit of industrialised nations in June is raising questions among some American allies.

US tank in Tikrit, Iraq
Bush wants Iraq to mark the first step to Mid-East democracy

They are concerned that it might sound as if the West is hectoring the Arab world and that other initiatives along the same lines from the United Nations and the European Union are being ignored.

In London a Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We want to build on the UN proposals. Much of any change will have to come from the region. We do not want to put out a British initiative and do not want to impose things."

A delicate period of diplomacy lies ahead, with the Bush administration pressing for a strong declaration supported by action programmes and some others taking a more cautious approach.

Bush democracy plan

The American plan builds on the policies towards the development of democracy already laid out by President Bush.

In a speech in London last November, he said:

They think they've invented the wheel. This approach has been pursued systematically by the EU
Rosemary Hollis, RIIA

"Peoples of the Middle East share a high civilisation, a religion of personal responsibility, and a need for freedom as deep as our own. It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it."

The idea is that at the G8 meeting in the American state of Georgia in early June, Mr Bush will seek the support of the other major industrial countries to make the development of more democratic institutions and the entrenchment of freedoms - such as freedom of speech and women's rights - a general policy goal.

Mr Bush wants to portray Iraq as the first step in a major democratic shift in the Middle East and beyond. This, in the American view, would not only bring more prosperity and freedom but it would undermine the appeal of Islamic extremism, which feeds on repressive rule.

The summit means comes only three weeks before the scheduled formal handover of power in Iraq to a sovereign government. There is diplomatic talk that the Americans want to invite Iraqis to the summit.

Helsinki accords example

US officials are comparing the initiative to the Helsinki agreements of 1975 which the Soviet Union saw as Western acceptance of the divisions of Europe but which were used by activists like Vaclav Havel to challenge communist rule.

Other American themes will be the restarting of world trade talks and action to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

With the US election by then likely to be in full swing, there is scepticism among some American partners.

John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, has said: "It's now clear that the president is seeing the Sea Island summit as a central part of his foreign policy and domestic re-election agenda. The headline he's looking for - and the one he'll probably get - is: 'G8 Leaders All Agree With George'."

UN reports

The UN initiative towards the Arab world was contained in two reports in 2002 and 2003 from the UN Development Programme.

One of the conclusions was: "Out of the seven regions of the world, Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the 1990's."

The reports made a number of recommendations, which are contained under the umbrella theme of "good governance".

"Higher levels of human development cannot be achieved in Arab countries without improving key aspects of governance systems," the 2002 report stated.

Of course, such reports are often praised and forgotten in one breath.

EU initiatives

Which is perhaps why the European Union is trying, through its trade agreements with North African and increasingly with Middle East countries, to link trade and human rights. That at least puts some teeth into high-sounding declarations.

The American proposal should be re-shaped, according to Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

"They think they've invented the wheel," she said. "This approach has been pursued systematically by the EU. The Americans should start by acknowledging that and then explain how they would complement it."

Discussions continue on the G8 agenda.

Germany urges new Mid-East plan
07 Feb 04  |  Europe

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