Don't-Rock-The-Boat Diplomacy

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 24, 2002

President Bush's upcoming speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears likely to solidify an awkward contradiction in his anti-terrorism policy. The president will contend that sweeping Palestinian political reform can and must be implemented immediately to stop attacks against Israel. Meanwhile, his administration is still arguing that reform of all the other Arab autocracies -- including those that have produced the terrorists who attack the United States -- can be expected only in small doses over many years.

Through the lens of counterterrorism, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have the same problematic profile. They are all undemocratic regimes that preside over large populations of frustrated young people who are deprived of both economic opportunity and political rights. Their leaders seek to deflect what would otherwise be a tide of domestic unrest by encouraging their media and mosques to whip up hatred of Israel, the United States and Western values, while suppressing any hint of secular or democratic opposition. Then all -- Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Prince Abdullah -- turn to the United States to argue that only they can control the terrorists they have created and that the extremism they foster is the only political alternative to their dictatorships.

Prodded by Israel's Ariel Sharon, Bush is rejecting this tired formula -- from Arafat. Judging from his public statements, the president will demand that the Palestinians dismantle Arafat's autocracy and "put structures in place . . . that respect the rule of law," including a constitution with separation of powers and security forces that are centralized and accountable. Most Palestinian politicians already have embraced this agenda and more -- Arafat's once-tame legislative council is demanding that he hold democratic general elections within the next year.

The logic behind the policy is simple: Reform will inevitably shift power away from Arafat toward moderates who want to build a responsible government, rein in extremist groups and negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. There is some risk that a new leadership would prove even more intransigent, or that Islamic extremists would sweep any elections. But provided some kind of credible peace process with Israel is underway, and violence can be checked, both Palestinian pollsters and American policymakers seem to agree that a more liberal, if not fully democratic, Palestine could be constructed within a year or two or maybe even sooner.

Now here's the odd part: As the administration sees it, the guarantors of that Palestinian reform process will include those other Arab autocracies -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Their role, apparently, is to oversee the reconstruction of a regime that in most ways resembles their own while rejecting any such medicine for themselves. The irony will not be lost on people in the region, of course -- Egyptians and Jordanians will once again conclude that the United States cares about democratic values only when it is strategically convenient.

So why not press political reform not just on the homeland of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but on those of al Qaeda -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen? Because policymakers have concluded that it's not a good idea to be so aggressive. They say the consensus is that liberal reform is a security interest of the United States and that the status quo of supporting Arab autocrats in exchange for oil and security cooperation is no longer workable. But the prevailing view is that it would be counterproductive to move too fast, that policy has to be aimed at achieving gradual change over years or even decades.

That means soft and indirect measures, which happen to have the advantage of not offending current rulers. A new U.S. radio station, for example, will broadcast in the region to counter some of the vile disinformation spread by the state-controlled media of U.S. allies. Democracy activists will be encouraged to come together for conferences. Regimes that experiment with liberalization, such as tiny Bahrain or Qatar, will be strongly encouraged, with the idea that they will become "catalysts" for change in larger neighbors.

All this is fine, as far as it goes. But what about direct support for democratic activists or human rights groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that seek to hold their governments accountable for respecting international human rights accords, or their own nominal constitutional guarantees? How about conditioning aid to Egypt, as to the Palestinian Authority, on respect for the rule of law and an end to hate-mongering by the state media? Why shouldn't Arab states be pressed to commit themselves formally to guaranteeing basic political and religious rights and to the creation of an international mechanism, such as the former Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to hold them accountable?

One voice of the Bush administration says this is just the right medicine for Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Another says it can't work for Mubarak's Egypt or Abdullah's Saudi Arabia. Either policy might prove a failure, but only the first really aims at stopping the breeding of terrorists.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company