Joel Brinkley / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-11-13 21:22:17
(November 11, 2007) — Eleven billion dollars just doesn’t buy what it used to.
How can it be, after handing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf about $150 million a month for the last six years, that the Bush administration has no real influence in Pakistan? After you rip away Musharraf’s excuses and double-talk about terrorist threats last week, his declaration of martial law codifies his standing as a full-fledged military dictator – without any of the asterisks that had followed that appellation before. That left President Bush with a serious quandary.
He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered the requisite expressions of displeasure. But the most striking realization from this affair is their evident surprise. By now, you would think, Bush and his aides would understand that they just don’t understand the Middle East.
How did Bush get to this place? An answer can be found in another piece of news out of Washington last week: The resignation of Karen Hughes as under secretary of state for public diplomacy.
Her job was to improve Washington’s image around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Hughes is a clever, energetic woman, but she knew little about the Middle East; she’d never been there before. On her first trip there, two years ago, she stopped in Saudi Arabia and told a group of women that she hoped they would soon be able to drive and “fully participate in society,” as women do in America. But the Saudi women cheered when one woman admonished her, saying they didn’t need her advice.
“We’re all pretty happy,” she said.
Hughes next stop was in Turkey, where she tried to find common ground during a meeting with women’s rights advocates. Instead they pummeled her with complaints.
“I’m feeling myself insulted here!” declared Hidayet Tuskal.
Two years later, America’s image in the Turkey and across the Middle East has declined so that in one recent, oft-cited poll, by the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of Turks hold a favorable view of the United States, compared to 52 percent in 2000. Hughes’ experience stands as a metaphor for the administration’s larger Middle East policy, a noxious brew of hubris and naiveté.
A big part of the problem is the war in Iraq. But another sore point is Bush’s Middle East democracy initiative. Sure, wouldn’t it be great if the Middle East was democratic? But was it wise, three years ago, when the Arab world was writhing in anger over the Iraq war, for Bush to declare that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
In the Middle East, then, Bush was saying he would try to unseat the kings, presidents and potentates who had grit their teeth and stood by Washington, even as their people seethed with anti-American fury.
Almost three years, ago I attended a conference in Morocco ginned up by Paul Wolfowitz and other conservatives who dominated administration thinking then. It was called the Forum for the Future, and its agenda was to promote democratization in the Arab world. After a few polite opening statements, the audio feed to the press center was supposed to be turned off so Secretary of State Colin Powell and two dozen Arab foreign ministers could have a frank, private discussion on the subject of democracy. Well, somebody forget to flip off the switch, and all of us heard a blistering critique.
For example, Saad Eddine Othmani, a Moroccan politician, said the Iraq war had “ruined any chance of a rapprochement between Americans and people in the Middle East. How can Americans in this situation bring us democracy?”
From there the democracy initiative went downhill. Now that Musharraf has stiff-armed Washington, Bush’s initiative is quite evidently dead.
“I find it hard to point to any real successes,” said Steven Cook, an expert on Middle East politics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Egypt, he noted, political activists have found a new voice, “and I don’t think this is reversible.” But Rice and other officials have stopped raising democratization during meetings in Cairo, leaving the advocates out in the cold. In recent weeks, the Egyptian government has imprisoned four opposition journalists, closed down a legal aid organization and jailed two men because they were Shiites.
Egypt, like Pakistan, receives billions of dollars in American aid. Egypt, like Pakistan, is ignoring the United States’ pressure to democratize. Last month, Washington agreed to give Egypt $301 million more, for schools, health care and sanitation. Almost daily, Egypt’s official press attacks Washington for meddling in Egyptian affairs. But it carried not one word about the new American aid.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times.