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New Report Endorses New Ways to Promote Democracy in the Middle East

June 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: As President Bush presses his calls for democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds, different countries have been trying out new things. In January, Iraq held its first free elections in roughly half a century, but it took another three months to form a government.

Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, unexpectedly announced in February plans for open presidential elections this fall for the first time since he took office in 1981. But opposition groups say the requirements for potential opponents are too burdensome.

In municipal elections in Gaza, in the West bank in recent months, the militant group Hamas also made a strong showing. Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah, another group called a terrorist organization, did well in parliamentary elections. Last month in Kuwait, the all-male parliament extended voting rights to women and said they could also hold office. And Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in several cities over the past few months for the first time in about 40 years, though women were not allowed to vote.

RAY SUAREZ: So how should the U.S. respond to these developments? A report from the Council on Foreign Relations has suggestions. Its authors, a former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former Republican congressman Vin Weber. They join us now, and welcome. Now, right away in the executive summary of the new report, it identifies the three old pillars of American interest in the Middle East, that is keeping the oil flowing, protecting Israel, and stability.

Does adding democracy to the mix make sense right now?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think very much so, because it is essential in that region to allow some of the developments that you discussed in opening this to come forth, and that democracy is a vibrant issue in the Middle East. And we cannot decide that this is the one area of the world where democracy’s the exception. It certainly doesn’t make the situation any simpler in the long run, but it is absolutely essential. And what our report talks about is the need for evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.

RAY SUAREZ: Why is it important for you?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Well, you know, first of all, it’s important to remember that it’s not just the United States, but really the entire western world that has rejected the notion of democracy in the Arab world going back literally to the founding of most of these states after World War I, when France and Britain were the main powers there. So there’s a lot of skepticism about our intentions on the part of that population.

But, you know, just think back, Ray, over the last, you know, 30 years — whatever period of time you want to use — what has always been the most dangerous part of the world? It’s almost always been the Middle East. The most volatile, the area that spawns terrorism, by some accounts the place that brought us closest to nuclear war back in the 1970s. Something has to be different because if that’s stability, we don’t need any more stability, and we believe that ultimately democratic reform gives outlets to people that will produce greater stability.

RAY SUAREZ: But what if throwing open the franchise and throwing open government to the popular will also means that you get a series of anti-American, anti-Israel governments. How does that fit with those old two pillars of American interest?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: We address that pretty directly in the council’s report. That’s probably one of our more controversial suggestions.

But we say that in a genuine democracy — and that’s what we want to see develop throughout the Arab world — you have to be ready to accept political parties, if you will, that hold what we believe to be extreme and extreme Islamist views.

The qualifier we put on it, of course, is they have to renounce violence and be committed to peaceful democratic change, not the violent overthrow of the state. But in a democracy you don’t always get the outcome of the election that you want, and we should be prepared to accept results in the Middle East that are not necessarily optimal for us. Over the longer term, democracy civilizes governments and civilizes people, and reduces the level of violence and the need to resort to violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary, same question.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I also think that the three pillars are less stable these days, if, in fact, we don’t recognize the fact that there are democratic movements and a sense of frustration in the Middle East. Therefore, thinking that we have stability under these current circumstances is a chimera. So that does not work. And Israel — and we, I think, are all committed to the security of Israel, but it is much less secure in a neighborhood where the people within the countries feel so repressed that they are then really recruiting grounds for all the terrorist kind of organizations.

So we think that ultimately the movement towards democracy is the most stabilizing factor, and recognize the fact that it is difficult and that, in fact, there might be governments that we don’t agree with. The important part is the second election. It isn’t one person, one vote, one time. But the existence of legitimate opposition parties that in fact create the possibility of accountability and change. Nobody, however, is saying that this is an easy prospect.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Right. Exactly.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: And what President Bush, I think, has done is very bold in terms of putting democracy on the agenda. What our report does is to provide a lot of substantive suggestions about how best to do this.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the lack of democracy, Vin Weber, created governments in waiting that actually are contrary to the American interest, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a formal opposition in all but name, but a suppressed organization?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: I would put it a little bit differently than that. All the sentiments that we are concerned about that you mentioned — anti-Americanism, extremism, anti-Israel sentiments — those sentiments are all there now. Let’s not pretend that they’re not. But now there is no legitimate avenue for them really to be expressed, so they express themselves to the extent they do through violence and terrorism, and wholly unacceptable means.

Our belief is that the democratic process provides a far better avenue for those feelings among others to express themselves. Are they governments in waiting? We don’t know that it’s that strong. We asked a lot of people and we spent time in the region in January, whether or not they thought those elements were going to for sure come to power when these countries democratize. We did not by any means get from the experts in the region, the local people, the sense that that was inevitable at all. But we did get a sense that the extremists are strengthened by the absence of a democratic outlet.

RAY SUAREZ: So is the reverse true of, Madam Secretary, that once you take off that suppression, the attraction of some of these groups begins to wane?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, that is something that we discussed when we were in the Middle East, and there was definitely the sense that if there were other groups available as part of the opposition, rather than a suppressed opposition like the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, that there would be other more moderate opposition groups that would come forward.

And that’s the idea. Basically they would not be gaining strength by being totally on a campaign of, “we are suppressed, we don’t get anything.” They would then, in fact, have to offer programs that help the people, and would be much more moderate.

RAY SUAREZ: Your report also takes some time to talk about the Arab media, and sees that as both having some problems and some prospects for this democratizing process.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, we basically think that as part of democracy, you have to have a free media, and have you to have a variety of sources of it. And so we think that there ought to be a variety of different outlets. I do think that one of the things, again, that is controversial in what, if I may say so, is a bipartisan report -

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Absolutely.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: — I think that is the part that is very notable and something that we are both very proud of — is that al-Jazeera, which is obviously the media that we always talk about, certainly is critical of the United States. And we can criticize what it says, but we can’t criticize the existence of al Jazeera.

There has to — we can’t say we’re for an independent press and then decide that we don’t like even having an independent press. But there needs to be more variety in it, and we also have to approach our own descriptions of what we’re doing in the Middle East in these countries in a different way. We don’t think that our public diplomacy programs are particularly well done.

RAY SUAREZ: If you talk to people from the region, some of the same things will pop up in conversation — American support now and in the past for certain regimes, American support for Israel, the heavy-handedness of some of these efforts in the past.

How do you live down the past? How do you escape having the taint of everything that’s been difficult about this relationship over the past if you’re trying to encourage democracy in this part of the world?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Well, first of all, I think the president deserves enormous credit for being consistent in talking about democracy in the region, and naming names when it comes to countries that need to democratize, including countries with which we’ve had close relationships such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

To a certain extent, though, the answer to this, you know, really age-old problem or long-standing problem is only going to come through a long period of consistent application of these principles by the U.S. government, and hopefully, frankly, by its European allies as well.

I’ve got to add one more thing, though. While we believe it’s important that the United States be consistent, while we realize that it is also important that we try to undo some of these negative images from the past, it’s not all on us. I mean, the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance, that you mentioned, is one that we need to be involved in. Secretary Albright certainly did everything she could along with President Clinton to solve the problem. We’re glad that President Bush is involved.

But the Arab-Israeli conflict’s existence can’t become an excuse for no progress in Arab regimes on any other topic. And that’s — you hear occasionally that nothing can happen until that problem is resolved. It can’t be that level of an excuse. They need to proceed both with the effort toward peace between Arab and the Palestinians, and with reform within the Arab regimes in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you get people who’ve enjoyed a monopoly on power for four decades or more to voluntarily let go?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, it’s obviously a very hard job to do that. But I think what we need to do is to help them recognize the fact that they are sitting on a very unstable system, and that if they don’t voluntarily change, they will be changed. And I think that is, there’s no question, at least from the discussion that we had there and from our previous and other experiences, there is a lot of ferment going on in these countries, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Syria or name it.

And it’s necessary to recognize that, and that these leaders will not be there if they clamp down, or that they will be overtaken by truly extremist elements. And what we’re saying is that it’s important to deal with Islamic groups that eschew violence, but are willing to follow a variety, to be involved with ballots rather than bullets. And so I think that is the direction that we think the leaders need to be persuaded of also, that they are sitting on basically ground tectonic plates that are shifting.

RAY SUAREZ: Madeleine Albright, Vin Weber, good to talk to you.

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Thank you.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you.