Howard LaFranchi

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes her Middle East trip with the region’s political and economic reform her focus, a promising spring is giving way to what threatens to be a torpid summer for democracy’s advance. Some see Secretary Rice’s visit as coming none too soon. March’s optimism on Lebanon has given way to postelection fears of rising factionalism. Egypt has openly rebuked reformist forces, and tensions have risen as Israel moves toward disengagement from Gaza. Her speech’s intent of setting forth a liberty agenda for US policy in the region mirrors the secretary’s well-received intervention in Paris in February. In that speech, Rice laid out America’s aspirations in a second Bush term for revitalising transatlantic relations. It set the stage for Mr. Bush’s visit and for improving relations with European allies.

Rice hopes to have the same touch in the Middle East, though conditions are probably more daunting, with skepticism over America’s pro-democracy intentions high because of Iraq, and with many reformers squeamish about a too-close association with the United States.

The secretary of state’s engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian process is important because for many Arabs the conflict remains the key to unlocking reform pressures in the region.

With an eye on Israel’s planned late-August pullout from Gaza, Rice will press Palestinians for more confidence-building security measures and Israelis to take further steps to ease Palestinian living conditions. She will also seek to convince Palestinians that the US sees what State Department spokesman Sean McCormack calls a “post-Gaza phase” to the peace process. In both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Rice will carry the banner of democratisation to friendly regimes that have recently come under direct criticism from Bush. Still, this does not mean that the administration has been under any illusions that Arab political reform would be swift and easy, some analysts say.

Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League diplomat now at American University in Washington, says the US focus on freedom and democracy is suspect to many in the region because the action that was supposed to spawn regional reform — regime change in Iraq — is widely viewed as illegitimate and resulting in chaos. At the same time, he says, events in Lebanon

are leading to new fears of a mushrooming sectarianism rather than democracy’s bloom. For such reasons, he says US rhetoric cuts two ways: “It is welcome because it does put pressure

on the regimes, but at the same time it complicates life for the reformers because it associates them with what looks like a project of the West.”

In their report for a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force on Arab reform, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Republican Rep. Vin Weber acknowledge these hurdles for US involvement. As a result, they encourage the administration to work more through independent pro-reform groups in the region. They also say the US should

not shy away from working with nonviolent Islamist political organisations, and should place more emphasis on education reform and public diplomacy — efforts to improve America’s image in the Arab world. — The Christian Science Monitor