Millions of Iraqis are expected to vote next week in an election to select a national assembly and begin the path leading to a democratically elected government. The move is seen as the latest step in the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy around the globe. But some analysts warn that Arab governments are wary of this policy and need to be convinced that democracy is not a threat. Correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this background report from Washington.
President Bush says it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.
"Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."
Incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says in the last quarter of the 20th century the number of democracies in the world tripled.
She says the Bush administration changed what had been long-standing U.S. foreign policy toward Arab nations.
"In the Middle East, President Bush has broken with six decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in hoping to purchase stability at the price of liberty. The stakes could not be higher. As long as the broader Middle East remains a region of tyranny and despair and anger, it will produce extremists and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. But there are hopeful signs that freedom is on the march. Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling to put dark and terrible pasts behind them and to choose a path of progress."
Judith Kipper is director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ms. Kipper says many people in the Middle East are wary of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the region, and need to be convinced that such freedom is possible in the context of their own history and current way of life.
"We want democracy because we think if they are democratic they will not come after us and they know that. And therefore, we have to articulate a foreign policy based on American values and good intentions and we need to say to the people out there that our good intentions are really good intentions. That democratization within your culture and your traditions and your religion is going to help you to prosper and have a better life. They do not believe that now, [to them] democracy means 'Western'."
Marina Ottaway is with the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
She is the co-editor of a new book called Uncharted Journey, Promoting Democracy in the Middle East.
Ms. Ottaway argues that U.S. diplomats must engage Islamist groups in Arab countries as part of the process toward democracy.
"We have to start talking to the Islamist groups because in many ways the future of democracy in the Arab world at this point is not in the hands of the liberals that do not have constituencies, but it is in the hands of the Islamist groups that do have constituencies. Unless those Islamist groups become part of a democratic process, and I am not saying for a moment that it is going to be easy to bring about this change, but unless that happens I think we are very unlikely to see real transformation in the Arab world anytime soon."
Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that in addition to the recent Palestinian and upcoming Iraqi elections, municipal voting is scheduled this year in Saudi Arabia, while Lebanon and Egypt are set to elect members of parliament.
Mr. Muravchik says the fact that President Bush is leading the call for political change in the Middle East has made authoritarian governments uncomfortable and has emboldened reformers.
"It is well within Bush's power to make it clear that we are serious, if he is serious, and I think he has actually gone a good distance toward doing that. I doubt that anytime in the short run we will convince them that we are sincere because there is going to be a deep distrust of our motives, but I do not think it is a fatal defect."
Mr. Muravchik says 2005 will be remembered as the year of voting in the Arab world, and perhaps as the year marking the beginning of Arab democracy in the Middle East.