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THE NATION | THE STATE OF THE UNION

U.S. to Foster Values in Islamic Countries

January 30, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first outline of a new political strategy to complement the war on terrorism, President Bush promised Tuesday that the United States will take advantage of a "great opportunity" to promote freedom, justice and equality among Islamic nations to counter the forces of terror.

The Bush administration will actively support individuals and groups that advocate freedom in the Islamic world because the United States has a "greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment," Bush said in his first State of the Union address.

His remarks reflect how much the administration's thinking has changed since Sept. 11 on the issue of nation-building, a practice Bush criticized during his presidential campaign. It also indicates a conviction that the United States is badly misunderstood in the Islamic world.

The only specific initiative mentioned in the speech was a doubling of the size of the Peace Corps to promote "development, education and opportunity in the Islamic world." More broadly, the president said Americans should seize the opportunity to aid Muslim societies. Through acts of "service and decency and kindness," Bush said the United States can "overcome evil."

The president's remarks underscored a growing focus within the administration on the need to address major grievances among people in Islamic nations, the last bloc of countries to hold out against the democratic tide that has swept much of the rest of the world over the last two decades.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and senior National Security Council officials have begun talking in recent weeks about more actively prodding governments in the Islamic world, stretching from Algeria on the Mediterranean Sea to Indonesia on the Pacific Ocean, to accept political and economic openings.

The president's words mark a "stunning turnabout" after long rejecting the idea of U.S. political intervention in the Islamic world, said Augustus Richard Norton, a former U.N. officer in Lebanon and now a Boston University political scientist.

"This is a president who chastised and ridiculed those who talked about nation-building, by which he meant the attempt by liberals to spread values like human rights and democracy around the world. But he has now basically embraced a liberal agenda in the Muslim world in talking about education, development and women's rights," Norton said.

Although the United States will not try to impose its own culture on Muslim nations, it will back five "nonnegotiable" demands of human dignity, the president said: the rule of law; restricting the powers of the state; respecting the rights of women and free speech, equal justice; and religious tolerance.

"America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere," he said as Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai looked on from the gallery of the House of Representatives.

"No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of secret police," he said.

The transformation of Afghanistan, where Muslims celebrated the fall of the Taliban's rule, offered proof that public sentiment in the Islamic bloc is no different from the rest of the world, Bush said. Islam's "rich history, with its centuries of learning and tolerance and progress," also indicates that these basic values are compatible with the political culture in Muslim countries, he added.

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