The Middle East doesn't need this peace plan

The 'initiative' aims to do for the Middle East what the Helsinki Accord did for the Soviet Union
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The Independent Online

If the aim of the al-Qa'ida terrorist is to create a great division between Islam and the West - and I believe that this is their most deep rooted hope - then Western leaders are marching straight into the divide.

All the rhetoric with which Tony Blair and President Bush have greeted the bombings in Madrid, with its talk of "war" and its sense of Armageddon, goes to promote exactly the sense of conflict which the bombers wish. It raises them from the level of brutal murderers to grand warriors and shows, in our reaction, that they are indeed scoring victories.

Of course Blair and Bush couch their statements in caveats to distinguish extremists from "decent Muslims", but the language they employ does everything to emphasise cultural difference, with its talk of "democracy", "women's rights" and free markets deliberately used to suggest that we have them and the Islamic world does not.

And as if the poor Middle East wasn't suffering enough from the problems of Palestine, the actions of the bombers and the corruption and authoritarianism of its rulers, we are now pursuing a US-inspired plan to push a vision on the Middle East, called the Greater Middle East initiative, in which America and Europe will combine forces to offer carrots and threaten sticks to force Islamic countries from Morocco to Afghanistan along the road to modernity.

The plan is nothing if not ambitious. It aims quite explicitly to do for the Middle East what the West tried for the communist world with the Helsinki Accord of 1975. Never mind that the Helsinki Accord - under which the Soviet Union signed up to a series of promises on human rights in exchange for aid and trade concessions - was universally decried by the Republican right in Washington at the time as meaningless and appeasing; their successors in the Bush administration have now embraced the plan as the model for the future in the Middle East.

The reason is not hard to find. In the débâcle of Iraq, President Bush needs to convince his electorate that he is still moving forward. Pre-emptive war is out for the moment, diplomatic force is now in, with the added benefit that it is a plan which could match US muscle with European economic inducements.

Which is fine, except for the fact that this is once again something that owes everything to our own interests and our view of Middle Eastern needs, not theirs. Of course the younger generation of the Middle East want greater freedom and greater control over their own lives. So, too, do womenwant to break out of the constriction of their cloistered existence. But this is an initiative that comes as an embarrassment to Europe and an act of antagonism to the Middle East, which sees it as a diversion from the crisis in Palestine and an act of hypocritical self-interest on the part of the West.

And they are right. It is not for nothing that the boundaries of the initiative stretch from Morocco to Afghanistan but do not include Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan, America's authoritarian allies where even the faintest glimmer of democracy has been stamped out. Nor is it for nothing that it does not include Israel or the occupied territories.

Democracy, women's rights and free markets are formulae for a reworking of the Middle East to make it less threatening to the West, which is why so many Arabs see it not as self-empowerment but as castration.

America's interpretation of its own interests is up to Washington, of course. What Europe and the Middle East - which is considering the initiative at the G8 meeting of industrial nations in the US this summer, at Nato (for Nato is supposed to be part of the initiative) in its Istanbul summit and by the Arab countries at their next meeting in Tunis at the end of this month - have to decide is whether they want any part of it.

The European Union has so far pursued a perfectly sensible course of its own through the Barcelona process which tries to bring North Africa and the Middle East (including Israel) closer to Europe through trade and investment agreements tempered by human rights requirements. It's not dramatic and its progress has been somewhat stuttering to date. But it is working, as recent developments in Iran and North Africa have shown, because it offers inducement without imposition.

In one sense for Europe to go along with the Greater Middle East initiative requires no more than melding this policy with US might. But in another sense, it wraps a policy of patient diplomacy in a new language of demand which could bring about the very conditions of conflict that it seeks to resolve.

Tony Blair, in an effort to break free from domestic criticism of his role in the war in his recent speech in Sedgefield, urged a wholesale rewriting of the rules of international co-operation and intervention to fight the new circumstances of the "war on terror".

But looking at the Barcelona process and what the UN could do if properly supported, one might well answer: why cast aside a system we never allowed a proper opportunity to work? What we need is to make the present structures like Barcelona effective, not distort everything to the domestic political imperatives of Bush and Blair.