MIDDLE EAST: Where are the Arab Gorbachevs?
Roland Flamini

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who is famously said to have reacted to complaints that the United States was supporting a certain Central American dictator with the reply, "Yes, he"s a son of a bitch, but he"s our son of a bitch."

Now President George Bush has said that successive US presidents and other leaders in the West got it all wrong. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," he declared in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington think tank.

The Bush administration, he said, was pursuing a "new policy" aimed at bringing democracy to the Arab world. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was just the beginning "a watershed in the global democratic revolution." The US invasion and occupation of Iraq were the first steps in "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Bush made no reference to the reasons given for the US-led offensive in the first place Iraq"s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction - or the portrayal of Saddam Hussein as a major threat to the free world. "Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation," he proclaimed.

Bush said it was condescending to believe that Islam put the Arab world "beyond the reach of democracy," but he conceded that it would not necessarily replicate American democracy.

Diplomatic sources in Washington said the president"s speech was sending shockwaves through the capitals of iron-fisted American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though Bush was mildly conciliatory towards both Cairo and Riyadh for "taking steps towards reform." The sources said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was likely to have to answer some pointed questions when he visits the Middle East this week to elaborate on the new policy.

If actions follow words, Bush has effectively declared the end of realpolitik in US foreign policy. But it"s a big "if," and skeptics say the president"s primary aim may have been to shift the focus of the Iraq occupation away from US soldiers dying to the higher plane of sweeping change in the region.

To add respectability to what many see as another White House defensive maneuver in an undertaking gone badly wrong, Bush reached back into history and cited Ronald Reagan"s 1982 address, in which he declared that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing. Bush"s rhetoric was intended to be a reminder of Reagan"s. Bush supporters are clearly hoping that the "strategy of freedom" in the Middle East will do for the president what the collapse of the "Evil Empire" did for Ronald Reagan.

There are obvious difficulties in putting the new policy into effect. What happens, for example, if elections bring to power anti-US governments? Will Washington be selective in putting pressure on Middle Eastern countries to democratize, going easy on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for example, and at the same time being tough on Syria?

And, importantly, how does Washington convince Arabs of its good intentions, while in Muslim eyes the Palestinians are being denied their rights?

Where is the infrastructure of aid that will overcome skepticism of US intentions the schools, the bilingual teachers, the generous medical aid, the scholarships?

It can also be dangerous to fiddle with history, and observers feel the link to Reagan is a thin one and could backfire.

Firstly, the Cold War created a bipolar world in which West and East faced each other across the so-called Iron Curtain: The Arab world is not a tightly controlled ideological bloc, but a mixture of individual regimes some of which have been US allies for decades.

Secondly, the United States was a symbol of freedom throughout Eastern Europe; American help was welcomed, and the Reagan administration"s economic pressure on Moscow watched with secret relish from East Berlin to Moscow itself. Arab populations may yearn to be liberated from oppressive regimes, but as the Iraqi experience has shown - they are suspicious of the United States as liberators since for decades Washington has dealt with the regimes that hold them in check.

Finally, if Reagan was the key figure in the collapse of the Soviet empire, he had a counterpart in Mikhail Gorbachev, the pragmatic last communist czar who knew when it was time to call it quits. But where are the Gorbachevs in the Arab world?

Roland Flamini is Senior Writer for United Press International