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U.S. Chooses Stability Over Quick Reform

Rice's Middle East trip highlights a sometimes contradictory policy, nudging key allies such as Egypt but strongly criticizing adversaries.

June 25, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's just-completed trip to the Middle East has provided the best indication yet that the Bush administration is emphasizing stability over an aggressive pursuit of reform as it translates the president's vision of spreading democracy in the region.

During stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both authoritarian states allied with the U.S., Rice engaged in gentle nudging, reassuring their leaders that the administration was not seeking to impose democracy but merely to encourage Western democratic values. Each nation, she stressed, could move at its own pace.

In Jordan, another ally, Rice had nothing but praise for King Abdullah II's government, calling it "a strategic partner in a shared vision of reform in this region," even though there is no hint the monarch might be willing to give up his absolute power.

Rice's trip, and her message, were watched closely in the Middle East. She was the first senior American official to carry details of President Bush's democratic agenda directly into the region since he declared the spread of democracy "the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time" five months ago in his second inaugural address.

That speech represented a shift from six decades of U.S. foreign policy in the region that gave priority to stability, sometimes over human and political rights. And Rice, during stops in Jerusalem, Amman, Cairo and Riyadh, both laid the groundwork and set the tone for the new agenda.

The changing approach is based on the belief that years of political oppression tacitly backed by the U.S. fueled, at least in part, the anger that eventually boiled over into terrorism and generated much of the anti-U.S. sentiment that grips the Arab world.

Critics have called Bush's vision utopian and dangerously simplistic, and Rice's trip provided little indication that the administration planned in practice to push for wholesale democracy in the Middle East. Instead, the application so far has been a selective exercise. It has underscored the reality that stability remains an essential factor as the U.S. pushes for liberalization in countries where it has significant interests.

In her public statements, Rice talked of how democratic values could be applied differently to each culture. But inconsistencies were obvious. For example:

* Just four months after canceling a visit to Egypt to protest the arrest of opposition leader Ayman Nour, Rice selected Cairo to deliver the trip's main speech on democratic reform -- even though more than 300 members of the country's largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, remained in jail.

* Although the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence nearly a generation ago, Rice declared in Cairo that "we have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood ... and we won't," despite administration urgings that democratic reforms should be inclusive. The reason, she explained, was the need to respect the ban on religious parties in Egypt, a country of one-party rule that has been under martial law for more than two decades.

Yet at a March 15 Oval Office appearance with Jordan's Abdullah, Bush seemed to leave the door ajar for the Syrian-backed Hezbollah to play a role in Lebanese politics, though the militant group has not renounced violence or its declared aim to destroy Israel.

"I like the idea of people running for office," Bush said. "There's a positive effect when you run for office."

* Then, while explaining in Cairo the need to work within Egyptian law, Rice openly challenged a Saudi law that had led to the imprisonment of three activists because they had petitioned for political change. "That should not be a crime in any country," she said. Several hours later, standing next to Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal at a news conference in Riyadh, she repeated the statement.

* Throughout the trip, the message for U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Syria was unyielding, and far more blunt. "It is not only the Lebanese people who desire freedom from Syria's police state," Rice told the audience of Westernized elites during the Cairo address Monday. "The Syrian people themselves share that aspiration."

Officials traveling with Rice admit the policy is inconsistent, but note there has been both a conscious decision to treat nations differently and a need to protect American interests.

A senior State Department official, who declined to be identified, explained the contradictory handling of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood: "The Lebanese have a political process that is moving forward free of outside influence. It's up to the Lebanese to decide how to deal with Hezbollah, not us. The Muslim Brotherhood is banned by Egyptian law, so it would be difficult to deal with them even if we wanted."

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