Originally published January 5, 2003 in the Boston Globe.

For more than a year, the Bush administration has mounted a strong rhetorical offensive against the lack of democracy in Middle East countries. As a policy toward democracy in the Middle East finally starts being defined, however, the old caution that has kept the United States from pushing for political change in the area in the past is reasserting itself.

The evidence that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries which the United States long considered its best allies in the Arab world, led the Bush administration to question the long-standing assumption that US interests would be best protected by the stability of friendly autocratic regimes. Such regimes, the new argument went, were actually dangerous to the United States because lack of democracy and the poverty induced by state control of the economy and the weakness of private enterprise bred frustration and terrorism.

President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have repeatedly stated that US interests, as well as those of the people of the Middle East, would be best protected by vigorous steps to bring liberty and democracy to the region.

In the more extreme statements emanating from conservative analysts close to the administration, the idea of democracy promotion was conflated with that of regime change. A US invasion of Iraq would trigger a wave of democratization throughout the Arab world, leaving in its wake a much transformed region.

After decades of utmost caution in dealing with the flammable Middle East, the United States appeared determined to promote quick and radical change, no matter the price.

This seemed a radical departure from the bland and cautious approach to democracy promotion in the Middle East during the 1990s. While investing about $250 million in democratization projects in the region, with the bulk of it going to Egypt and the West Bank and Gaza, the United States had been very cautious not to challenge incumbent regimes. Money went primarily to institutional reform efforts in Egypt - mostly failed attempts to strengthen the parliament, make the courts more efficient, or decentralize the ponderous administration - and to promote non governmental organizations advocating for human rights and women's rights or carrying out civic education.

In a decade during which the United States did not hesitate to impose democratic changes in other parts of the world, it defined its role in the Middle East as that of helping to prepare the countries for the day when political change would become possible, rather than making the change happen.

In Africa, the United States was threatening reluctant leaders with the suspension of foreign assistance unless they held elections. In Slovakia and Serbia, it was openly financing and training large coalitions of NGOs with the express purpose of bringing down dictators. But in the Middle East, particularly in politically sensitive countries like Egypt, the United States was resting its hopes for democratization on the good will of "the next generation," the sons of strongmen anointed by the fathers to succeed them.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration's new tough stance on democracy and regime change created a strong negative reaction in Arab countries. The governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia felt that they were being unjustly singled out. The strongest reaction, however, came from the Arab press.

For months, newspapers throughout the Arab world unleashed a barrage of angry articles that denounced the Bush administration's stance on democracy, calling into question its sincerity, and attacking it as a smoke screen designed to distract attention from Bush's real agenda: to grab Iraq's oil and give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians.

The concerns of Arab governments and the anger of the Arab press were understandable but, it turns out, probably premature. As the outlines of a policy toward Middle East democracy are finally emerging from the haze of rhetorical statements, it is becoming clear that nothing much is going to change in practice. The new policy resembles a lot more the cautious policy of old than the ideas put forth in the last year. The constant imperatives that have guided US policy in the region - to maintain access to an uninterrupted, abundant supply of reasonably priced oil and to maintain good relations with countries willing to remain at peace with Israel - are once again pushing democracy to the far back of the agenda. The US current quest for military facilities it can use in a possible attack against Iraq has the same effect.

In a speech delivered on Dec. 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the launching of the administration's new Middle East Policy Initiative, stating that it "places the United States firmly on the side of change, of reform, and of a modern future for the Middle East."

Funded at a minuscule $29 million for 2003, to be divided among projects to promote economic reform, educational reform, women's rights, and the formation of civic organizations, the initiative is a continuation of the bland policy of the 1990s, signaling that life is returning to normal where democracy promotion in the Middle East is concerned.

And this is unfortunate. US policy in the 1990s made no real contribution to the badly needed transformation of the area. While the sanguine vision promoted by the Bush administration earlier - of a US-induced democratic revolution engulfing the Middle East as a result of US intervention - is simply a mirage, a cautious policy of promoting education and women's rights will do nothing to promote political change.

If the United States wants to contribute to the democratization of the area, it has to face the fact that regimes become more democratic only when they are challenged by a strong opposition. In Arab countries, such opposition exists, but it is dominated by Islamist parties. The Islamists are thus the key to the political transformation of the Middle East.

Unless the United States gains a better understanding of the wide array of Islamist movements and starts engaging with the more moderate among them, helping to bring them into the realm of politics rather than violence, and unless it is willing to push incumbent regimes to accept change, it will have no impact on the democratization of the Arab world.