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Council Expert Says Plan for Mideast Reform Needs a Push from Washington

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 10, 2004

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Steven A. Cook, a Council on Foreign Relations expert on Middle East politics, says the Group of Eight (G-8) plan for a reform “partnership” with Mideast nations is a step in the right direction. The plan, issued at the end of the June 8-10 G-8 Summit on Sea Island, Ga., is a modified version of a proposal floated by the Bush administration earlier this year. The original administration draft drew criticism from the Arab world, where it was seen as interference in domestic affairs. “It’s very good that the summit happened,” Cook says, “and that we are now talking very clearly and forthrightly about political reform in the region to Arab leaders and the Arab world.”

Cook, a Next Generation Fellow at the Council, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 10, 2004.


The G-8 summit issued a document, with a very long name, about reform in the Middle East. What do you make of the document, and how will the plan it describes play in the Middle East?

You’re right, it has a long and cumbersome name: “The Partnership for Progress and Common Future in the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa.” The partnership consists of four components. The first is a “Forum for the Future,” which is a government-to-government dialogue modeled after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, the annual get-together of finance ministers, economic ministers, and foreign ministers. [The Forum for the Future will also include], it is hoped, social development ministers from the G-8 countries and the Middle Eastern states.

What are the other components?

The second part is an educational component, a literacy corps for the Arab world to train 100,000 people to develop literacy in the region. It’s stunning how many people cannot read in the Middle East. [The third element is] what’s being called a democracy assistance group. This is the coordination of U.S., European, and other institutions’ efforts on political reform. And finally, there is going to be a micro-finance initiative and a separet program to encourage small and medium business through the International Finance Corporation.

What about democracy? Didn’t this start with Bush’s call for the Iraq war to lead to the democratization of Iraq and for democracy to spread to the rest of the Middle East?

Rhetorically, the Bush administration continues to hammer away that a free, democratic, liberal Iraq will be a model for the rest of the region. Many Middle East governments, experts, and intellectuals in the region are skeptical of this because the Arab world has undergone many, many changes over the years, yet the regimes there remain largely in place and largely authoritarian. This initiative has lost some of its edge from an initial draft that was leaked last February in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat to the political documents that emerged from Sea Island yesterday.

You are quite right in asking, “Where is democracy in this?” The idea now is to partner with the region and give the Middle East countries what they need to promote reform. When I took a look at this document, it’s tilted heavily toward technical areas— literacy, micro-finance, small and medium business development. The only new thing is this Forum for the Future, and it is government-run. I should mention that there is going to be parallel dialogue in this forum for civil society and business groups. But these are things we’ve been doing in the region for 10 or 15 years, and certainly things that the Europeans have been doing since they launched the Barcelona Process in 1995; it’s officially called the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. So the question is, what’s new? And, given the fact that we’ve done a lot of these things previously and the results have been, at best, meager, what is the connection between these initiatives and actually promoting democracy?

And the answer?

The administration’s thinking, and I think it’s obvious in this document and in what the Europeans have been doing in the Barcelona Process, is that if you do the economic side of things, it will bring the political side along: you empower people economically, and they will start demanding political rights. That’s true, people will, but I would caution against making a causal connection between economic reform and development, and political reform and progressive political development. Economic development goes along with democratization, but it does not cause it. There’s been economic liberalization in the region and there’s been economic reform in the region, to some extent, and it hasn’t necessarily produced political reform.

For example, [the late Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat’s much-heralded infitah, which means opening, was undertaken in the late ’70s and early 1980s. He was reorienting the Egyptian economy from a state-controlled, semi-socialist type of system to one that would be open to the world. This empowered a whole range of new entrepreneurs. The problem was that [the infitah] created a commercial economy without creating a market economy. The state remained the major actor in the economy, so all these new entrepreneurs were easily co-opted, because their livelihoods were dependent on doing business with the state or doing business with other entities that did business with the state. What developed, rather than a market economy, was crony capitalism. The same thing happened in Algeria. Chadli Bendjedid, the former president of Algeria, undertook an “infitah-light” that empowered a lot of people who were close to the state— military officials and bureaucrats.

Did anything positive come from the G-8?

I don’t mean to sound totally negative about the summit and the documents that have come out of it. It’s very good that the summit happened and that we are now talking very clearly and forthrightly about political reform in the region to Arab leaders and the Arab world. It’s very important that we are casting it in terms of a partnership with them, because one of the things that happened when the documents were leaked in February was that [the proposal] was seen as something the United States wanted to impose on the Arab world. It was seen as a neo-colonial project, in the words of the Saudi foreign minister. Just by dint of talking about it now as a partnership, it’s a good thing. It’s no longer reform and liberalization, No. 19 on an agenda of 20 items. It’s clearly up there.

Does the G-8 document represent the lowest common denominator for a plan the Europeans would buy into?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it “lowest common denominator.” I think there were three or four issues, besides the emotional reaction the Arabs had to it as a neo-colonial project, that got in the way of the United States producing a more hard-edged proposal.

The first was that the Europeans didn’t want a new initiative to overshadow what they were doing in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The second was Arab opposition. I think the Bush administration was stunned and surprised by the initial criticism. And so the administration was forced to tone it down and emphasize a partnership. And if you look at the plan— not necessarily the political document that has come out, but the G-8 plan of support for reform --three or four pages into it are excerpts from the Tunis Declaration from the Arab Summit, the Sana’a Declaration, the Alexandria Declaration, and the Arab Business Council Declaration. The drafters of the plan of support took material from those declarations and then listed what the Europeans and the United States were doing, and how they were going to focus their emphasis on “deepening democracy and broadening participation.” They really tried to work this document and make it as much of a partnership as they possibly could.

The other issues the Bush administration ran into were the situation in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because things have not gone as well as the administration had hoped in Iraq and because the Arab-Israeli conflict has riled the Arab world, the administration was prevented from coming out with a very strong proposal.

Do you expect, as a result of all this, that the administration will get more involved in the nitty-gritty of the Palestinian-Israeli issue or, as in most election years, is it assumed the United States will do nothing?

That is assumed and is a major concern of the Arab world. The original political document the United States had drafted mentioned the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it was not front and center. The Germans took that document and rejiggered it and placed the Israeli-Palestinian issue front and center. There is a very long paragraph in the political document about it.

The document now shows that the G-8 was interested in taking Arab concerns into consideration. At the same time, this should not be an obstacle to moving forward with reform. Will this spur the administration to do more? Now that the plan is out, the European and Arab partners can hold it up to the Bush administration and say the United States committed itself in this way. There’s that possibility, of course, but this administration, from the start, has been reluctant to expend the president’s prestige on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it sees it as going nowhere.

Is Bush feeling a little better about things?

I think he’s definitely feeling better about things. First of all, he was able to secure the U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq. The new Iraqi President [Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar] arrived at Sea Island, and the United States and its European partners were seemingly unified on the Security Council resolution. Also, after all these months Bush was able to produce a document that was acceptable to everyone. There is a plan here— whether it’s new or not seems irrelevant— and there is something to be said about this partnership and the Forum for the Future.

The question, though, is whether the Bush administration has made the commitment to promote democratization in the region. There are a number of cross-cutting political pressures, including the global war on terrorism. How do we manage our relations with countries when we need their security assistance and, at the same time, encourage these leaders, who have held their power for quite a long time, to give up their power? While the president should be feeling pretty good about what happened, I think the biggest hole was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for their own reasons, declined the invitation to come to Sea Island.