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U.S. seen retreating from democracy push
The United States has quietly retreated from its high-profile push for democracy in the Muslim world, since the Hamas election stunned the Bush administration by bringing a violent militant group to power. Despite President George W. Bush’s continued public focus on democratization, analysts say U.S. policy-makers saw the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories as part of a potentially d
Friday, October 13,2006 00:00
by David Morgan, Reuters
The United States has quietly retreated from its high-profile push for democracy in the Muslim world, since the Hamas election stunned the Bush administration by bringing a violent militant group to power.

Despite President George W. Bush’s continued public focus on democratization, analysts say U.S. policy-makers saw the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories as part of a potentially dangerous trend following democratic gains for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In each instance, elections were seen to boost adversaries of U.S. ally Israel, and in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, groups labeled as terrorist organizations by Washington.

The experience in Iraq, which U.S. officials once envisioned as the catalyst for democratic change in Arab countries, has emerged instead as a disturbing symbol of sectarian strife.

"Frankly, the administration has retreated even from a passive push for democracy," said Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Washington is now largely silent about actions taken by Middle East regimes to suppress political opposition.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who made an impassioned speech about democracy in Cairo last year, did not publicly criticize Egypt’s repressive tactics during her recent visit.

"A lot of regimes are detecting a green light to go back to the past," Rubin said. "It’s undercut any kind of credibility the United States has, not just now but well into the future, in any calls for reform."

Policy analysts have warned that eroding U.S. credibility on democratization jeopardizes American efforts to use reform as a weapon against growing Islamist militancy and al Qaeda propaganda.

They say the United States faces a generational struggle in the Muslim world, where deep-seated suspicion about American motives is exacerbated by the repressive and corrupt practices of governments allied with Washington.

"Greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim-majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances jihadists exploit," according to a recently declassified intelligence report on global terrorism trends.

’PERCEPTION OF HYPOCRISY’

The credibility problem is complicated by Bush’s use of the democracy theme in speeches. Before the U.N. General Assembly, he portrayed the United States as a friend of freedom but cited autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, as reformers.

"People in the region know about the Saudi government. They’re not naive," said Thomas Carothers, head of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The perception of hypocrisy is extremely high," he said.

Ellen Laipson, former vice chairwoman of the National Intelligence Council, a leading government think tank, suggested the White House may have now adopted a more pragmatic, longer term approach to reform.

"It is not something that they’re going to be able to say they completed on their watch, or that they even know it is going to work on their watch," said Laipson, now head of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a public policy institute.

The Bush administration has supported democratization through programs such the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which has allocated almost $300 million over four years to reform, education and economic development.

But according to Rubin and former intelligence officials, democratization was never fully embraced by rank-and-file officials including diplomats, partly because the National Security Council failed to establish it as a priority.

Pro-democracy groups in Arab countries have become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful reform. This year, Saudi liberals said they had abandoned hope the United States would pressure the government, even privately, to reform the absolute monarchy.

Even in Afghanistan, which Washington showcases as a democratic success story, observers cite a lack of follow-through on last year’s elections for parliament and provincial councils.

"We are particularly concerned that there appears to be no effort going into helping build political parties ... as well as no talk of the district and municipal elections that are supposed to be held under the constitution," said Joanna Nathan, a Kabul-based analyst for International Crisis Group.

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