Policy to Democratize Mideast Comes Under Fire

Recent Mideast elections benefiting anti-American parties have raised concerns about one of the centerpieces of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats alike voiced doubts this week about the U.S. campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East, a campaign that they say has actually helped radical Islamist parties.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. We're going to begin this hour with a look at one of the centerpieces of the Bush administration's foreign policy, promoting democracy in the Middle East. The campaign has helped some Islamist parties, including the Palestinian group Hamas. In a moment, we're going to hear about the man Hamas is expected to name as Palestinian Prime Minister, but first, questions about the policy in this country. On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike have raised concerns, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde of Illinois, gave Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a warning about what he called the perils of a golden theory. In a flowery speech at the start of a hearing yesterday, Hyde argued that promoting democracy is no magic formula.

HENRY HYDE: For some, the promotion of democracy promises an easy resolution to the many difficult problems we face, a guiding light on a dimly seen horizon. But I believe that great caution is warranted here.

KELEMEN: Hyde said the U.S. has to support freedom around the world, but as he put it, the indiscriminate promotion of democracy is more of a leap of faith than a sober calculation.

HYDE: Upending established order based on theory is far more likely to produce chaos than shining uplands.

KELEMEN: There was, for instance, the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections. Rhode Island senator Republican Lincoln Chafee called that disastrous, and said the U.S. must be prepared to deal with Islamists in Egypt as well if it continues pushing for elections.

LINCOLN CHAFEE: One of the ramifications of these elections and democracies is that we don't talk to the winners.

KELEMEN: In the Palestinian case, that's because the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization. University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami says there's a reality the U.S. will have to deal with: Islamist parties do well in elections in the Middle East.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You cannot engineer the emergence of a third alternative to ruling elites and Islam in any foreseeable future, not even if you pour a lot of money into NGOs and civil society. You have only one choice if you want to proceed with rapid electoral democracy, and that is you have to make a choice of whether you deal with Islamists or you confront them.

KELEMEN: Despite the warnings, there's little second guessing going on inside the Bush administration according to Daniel Fried, an assistant Secretary of State, who's been a strong proponent of what's being called the freedom agenda.

DANIEL FRIED: There is naturally a debate. My question to the skeptics is, was 60 years of support for authoritarianism in the broader Middle East a policy that worked?

KELEMEN: Just this week, the Bush administration asked for $75 million to promote democracy in Iran, and U.S. officials raised hopes they could encourage Iranians to form some sort of solidarity movement, like the one that toppled communism in Poland. Fried, a former ambassador to Poland, insisted Washington is being realistic.

FRIED: History never repeats itself. Sometimes it rhymes. My point is that you can't apply one model to another country in a rigid, mechanistic way. That's not the point of the freedom agenda. But the point is to put ourselves on the right side of history.

KELEMEN: While critics argue the short-term results of this freedom agenda have been dangerous for U.S. interests in the Middle East, Fried said he thinks this is a legacy issue that the Bush administration will be most proud of.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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