The Greater Middle East Initiative

by Richard W. Murphy
The problem confronting President Bush as he prepares to launch the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) is that many in the region disagree with America’s reform priorities and distrust American motives in Iraq.

At least in the Arab world, Americans are seen as ready to invest an enormous amount of money and endure casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while neglecting what Arabs view as the more important issue of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Also problematic is a pervasive conviction in the area that the invasion of Iraq unmasked Washington, revealing its true face as a neo-colonial power thirsting for oil and regional dominance. This assumption will endure at least until America has withdrawn its military from Iraq, and probably for a time thereafter.

President Bush will officially present the GMEI in June at the meeting of the G-8. Predictably, he will express his strong personal interest in helping to achieve greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East, where he has so deeply committed American troops and his own prestige. By June he will have heard the views of European and friendly Arab governments urging modest goals and patience, but his presentation will likely feature a strong advocacy of the reforms he believes are essential in the region. Even those who will credit him for the sincerity of his beliefs will hear in his presentation a familiar example of American high-handedness, just another profession by an American leader of his support for peace and development in the Middle East while continuing what they see as a policy stubbornly supportive of Israel and deaf to Palestinian positions.

The GMEI was prematurely leaked to the press and came across as a program designed entirely by America. This provoked an instant reaction across the region against any “imposition of foreign values.” The Administration hastily backed off, emphasizing that it welcomed regional ideas for reform. While the Arab Summit had the reform issue on its agenda, its March meeting was cancelled. This leaves Washington to prepare its initiative without any attempt from the region to provide coordinated input.

The GMEI risks becoming just another high flying slogan coined by presidential speech writers unless it is accompanied by carefully designed steps to implement it. It reminds me of former President Bush’s prediction of a “New World Order,” a phrase he introduced in a speech to Congress in March 1991. Triumphant in the wake of Desert Storm and buoyed by the warm reception of his pledge to work for Arab-Israeli peace, the former President’s words nonetheless stimulated editorial writers throughout the region to speculate wildly about what exactly he meant. Despite his significant accomplishments in convening the Arab-Israeli summit in Madrid later that year, the “New World Order” slogan did not survive his term in office.

The views former President Bush expressed in 1991 about the need for democracy and freedom in the region are basically the same as those now driving the GMEI. The new initiative may have a longer life and stronger attraction for many Americans who believe in the Administration’s linkage between their own security and advancing the principles of democracy and free markets in the Middle East. The argument that 9/11 happened because of the failure of earlier administrations to support these principles in the Middle East with the intensity America had brought to bear in Asia and Eastern Europe has had an impact.

It is true that before 9/11, when dealing with leaders of most Middle Eastern countries, American diplomats were not instructed to press for more open political systems. Most of these systems have grown increasingly autocratic over the past half century. In those days we were guided by a very terse definition of America’s priorities in the area: enhance the security of Israel, maintain the free flow of oil at reasonable prices and block Soviet efforts to gain a foothold in the Gulf.

Despite common interests and a half century of interaction between Arab and American officials, our people remain largely ignorant of each other. Arabs dwell on the alleged total Israeli control of American Middle East policy while American understanding of the region is equally twisted: the Middle East is a hostile area dominated by Islamic extremists. This mutual misunderstanding complicated our relationships when we were a distant Great Power. It is more unsettling and dangerous to both sides now that we have occupied Iraq and talk openly of our commitment to preemptive war.

At this juncture the Arab and Muslim world is undergoing a sharp crisis of confidence. It increasingly feels that its values and its identity are under attack, while its youth are therefore increasingly receptive to the call to defend Islam against the Western onslaught.

The Middle Eastern audience for the President’s presentation of the GMEI will be skeptical and resistant if not actively hostile.

- Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. This article is part of a series of views on the America’s "Greater Middle East" initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts