Just a few months ago, the intelligentsia from Boston to Berlin was mocking President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers as naive ideologues whose vision of spreading democracy throughout the Islamic crescent was going up in the flames of Iraq and Israel. That was then. Now, after successful Iraqi and Palestinian elections, baby steps toward reform in Saudi Arabia, an opening in Egypt, and peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Administration critics are all but conceding that Bush may be on to something. "Despite all the numskull comments and lack of understanding of the area, you have to say there is good as well as bad," says one Cairo-based Western diplomat.
While happenstance has helped -- Yassir Arafat's death, for example, restarted the peace process -- some experts are beginning to credit a relentless America, too. "Bush has succeeded in shaking up the old order," says Middle East expert Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University. Indeed, now that Bush has won a second term, both erstwhile allies and stubborn satraps have been forced to face the fact that they'll have the hardheaded Texan to deal with for the next four years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended a Mar. 1 meeting in London on the future of the Palestinians, has tapped into the new reality by winning expanded commitments from NATO allies to train Iraqi security forces and from France to tighten the diplomatic screws on Syria.
But the White House has a long way to go before the seeds of democracy bear fruit. Among the challenges:
WINNING THE IRAQI PEACE. Majority Shiites must let minority Sunnis take part in governing, and the U.S. must make more Iraqi forces combat-ready to pave the way for a graceful exit.
ENCOURAGING ABBAS. Bush was roundly criticized in Europe for his low-key approach to the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. But the election of reformist Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gives the White House reason to hope. Bush's challenge is to gently nudge Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon toward withdrawals from occupied territories while pushing Abbas and Syria to crack down on terrorists. The U.S. has handled Abbas well, "largely by not appearing to embrace him too closely," says Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. It will take deft diplomacy to sustain the fragile momentum.
WOOING THE ARAB "STREET." Recent events shattered the view that most Muslims reject American concepts of liberty and democracy. They're "starting to question the status quo in the region," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This gives the President a chance."
By working with Mideast reformers and nongovernmental organizations, the Administration may be able to promote incremental change. The goal: allowing democracy to flower while marginalizing radical Islamic groups -- Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- that might do well if elections were held today. "Everything in the past few months is just hopeful beginnings that could change overnight," warns Gerald M. Steinberg, a conflict expert at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. That's no doubt true. But just yesterday the neocons weren't given even a glimmer of hope.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) just complicated his plans to rewrite the 1996 Telecom Act. At a Mar. 1 broadcast industry meeting, he expressed interest in extending to cable TV the anti-indecency regulations that govern network broadcasts. Cable execs, who have reaped huge profits from foul-mouthed and risqu? shows such as The Sopranos and The L Word, will now redouble their efforts to resist any wide-ranging rewrite of the landmark telecom law. Unlike the political environment preceding the 1996 act, when the phone, cable, and broadcast sectors all wanted a change in the rules, today only the Bells are pushing for a rewrite that would offer greater deregulation. In addition to cable's new indecency worries, broadcasters fear a legal overhaul would include restrictions on their consolidation efforts.
Usually, diplomacy means quiet discussions between countries that have differences. But Secretary of State Rice is taking a new tack -- no-show diplomacy -- that seems to get results. After she abruptly canceled a trip to Egypt to signal her displeasure at the jailing of a political dissident, President Hosni Mubarak promptly moved toward competitive presidential elections for the first time. Then Rice put off a visit to Canada after Ottawa declined to join the U.S. missile defense program. One Administration official says Canada's decision was a factor; another insists the proposed April date just didn't work. But the message delivered was: It's Condi time.