The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative- Imperilled at Birth

The U.S. Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMEI), in preparation since President George W. Bush announced seven months earlier that Washington was adopting a ?forward strategy of freedom? and would no longer accommodate friendly but authoritarian regimes in the region, will be launched at the G-8 summit of major industrialised nations on 8-10 June, then expanded upon at U.S.-European Union (EU) and NATO summits later in the month.[1] Its content has been much reduced since the proposal as first floated received a sceptical reaction in Europe and a mostly hostile one in the region. Unless Washington works harder and in a new way, especially at pursuing a balanced Israel-Palestinian peace process, the BMEI, promising as it may have been, is likely to be overwhelmed by the rising tide of Middle Eastern violence and anti-Americanism. It would be unfortunate if the initiative does lose momentum. New policies are needed to attack the democracy and related structural deficits identified by Arabs themselves, prominently but by no means only in the pair of reports released in 2002 and 2003 by the United Nations on Arab Human Development. Debate about reform is expanding in the region, driven by independent intellectuals, still weak civil society organisations and Islamic groups. Governments are joining in, but as the difficulty the Arab League experienced before finally issuing a limp statement on ?development and modernisation? at its own summit in May 2004 suggests, most want simply to co-opt it. The BMEI may at least apply some balm on a Transatlantic relationship that has been rubbed raw by differences over Iraq. Both sides of the ocean would welcome the growth of more democracy in a vital region, though the degree of their cooperation to achieve that common goal is uncertain given residual suspicions in Brussels about Washington's desire to piggyback on well-established (if by no means fully successful) programs into which the Europeans have poured more money than the U.S. seems prepared to match. Despite the rhetoric with which the U.S. embarked on its new policy, there are few indications it is prepared to put established relations with authoritarian but cooperative Middle Eastern states at risk and pin its future on civil society and political opposition movements. There is even less indication it is willing to test the increasing professions of political Islam in the region that it is committed to the ground rules of democracy. Reformers throughout the region are hard pressed to say kinder things about the U.S. initiative than that the message - the need for more democracy - should not be disregarded because the messenger, especially in the post-Iraq war world, is suspect. They are uncertain whether the new emphasis from Washington will give a bad name to their own efforts or create a little more room with governments to pursue their goals. If the BMEI is to have any possibility of producing a generation-long partnership of Western states and regional reformers to attack the genuine needs of the Middle East, the U.S. will simply have to take significant steps to change the highly unfavourable wider political context in which the initiative is launched.