TOPICS : Even word ‘democracy’ now repels Mideast reformers

Mikaela A McDermott and Brian Katulis

For much of the past decade, we’ve worked to promote democracy in the Middle East, largely with funding from US government grants. Since 9/11, the US has moved the promotion of democracy in the Middle East to centre stage, dedicating unprecedented funding and political rhetoric to it — and, ironically, our work has never been harder. Across the region, we’ve encountered increasing reservations about the new American initiative to support political reform. The primary reason is a growing perception that the US acts in a way that is inconsistent with the democratic values and respect for human rights that it rhetorically espouses.

This isn’t just about the Iraqi prisoner abuses. Incommunicado detention of terror suspects and the muted criticism of human rights violations by American allies are cited as reasons for hesitation in cooperating with US organisations. The perceived gap between rhetoric and deeds isn’t mere fodder for Bush critics; it has had a tangible adverse effect on the work of Americans attempting to assist Middle Eastern democratic reformers. On a recent trip to Syria, Bahrain, and Jordan, reformers told us, with great distress, they can no longer even use the words “democracy” and “human rights” in their communities, let alone work publicly on US-funded democracy promotion projects. Sadly, these terms have become synonymous with military occupation, civilian casualties, and abuse of prisoners.

On a recent trip to Jordan, we encountered a number of Americans who’d been bravely working with nascent Iraqi political parties and civic organisations, but who had been evacuated from Baghdad because of deteriorating security conditions. We offer no silver bullet. But there are ways the US can regain some credibility: Many Middle Easterners view the lack of a UN resolution for the invasion of Iraq as a contravention of democratic principles. A greater UN role in Iraq would be seen as a stronger US commitment to democracy. Increase the diplomatic and political focus on democratic institutions and processes. For decades, US policy fixated on individual leaders, many of whom have been dictators, and none of whom have been poster children for democracy and human rights. This redefinition of diplomacy should include the regular rebuke of those foreign officials with poor records on democracy and human rights.

Criticise all violations of human rights and rule of law on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the fight against terror, desperate times may require desperate measures, but failing to criticise egregious violations of human rights and rule of law undermines any US effort to serve as an honest broker in the peace process. The US must conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, punish those responsible for any abuses, and implement procedures to ensure that mistreatment will not occur again. Also, People-to-people connections may be what get us through this period. Despite the danger, there are individuals in the Middle East willing to look beyond what they perceive as American double talk to work for reform in their societies. — The Christian Science Monitor