Is America serious about democracy and political reform in the Arab world? Does the neo-Wilsonian dimension of the Bush administration's policy toward the region presage a decisive departure from the longstanding realist policy of "regime maintenance"?
There is broad consensus in Washington that a "war of ideas" is a central component of the larger war on terror. And in this war, a prime target is the "poisonous" Arab media environment, particularly the new satellite television channels , which are blamed for spreading anti-American sentiment.
In a series of bold decisions last December, the Libyan government openly acknowledged its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Within days of the announcement Mohamed Al Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited the country and soon afterward the government in Tripoli turned over its store of acquired literature and hardware to the United States.
For three decades, human rights violations in Libya were committed under the rubric of “revolutionary defense.” The government and its extensive security apparatus imprisoned or “disappeared” critics who challenged the ideology of the 1969 revolution that overthrew the monarchy or of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi's system of Jamahariya, the “state of the masses.”
As part of its emergence from political and economic isolation, Libya is converting to an open-market economy after decades of socialist-style policies. Among the most unpopular steps taken by the government so far has been cutting subsidies, which has triggered widespread anger among Libyans.
The second of June marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Lebanese writer Samir Qasir, with no indication of who ordered the car bombing that silenced one of the loudest Arab voices criticizing autocratic Arab regimes, particularly the Assad family in Syria.
Until recently Western assistance programs aimed at strengthening political parties were less present in the Arab world than in almost all other areas of the developing world. As part of the heightened U.S. and European interest in promoting Arab political reform, however, such programs are multiplying in the region.
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi initiated a major shift in economic policy at the turn of the millennium. When early efforts at economic liberalization produced limited results, he stepped up the pressure in June 2003, declaring the public sector a failure, calling for the privatization of the economy, and pledging to bring Libya into the World Trade Organization.
Foreign democracy assistance organizations working directly with political parties have come into the line of fire as some Arab governments have pushed back against democratization initiatives over the past two years. In Algeria, Bahrain, and Egypt in particular, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have been among the first to feel pressure.
The release of six foreign medics from a Tripoli prison in July 2007, after E.U. and French mediation ended an eight year ordeal, provoking sighs of relief across Europe. In Brussels, E.U. bureaucrats promptly got to work on pushing toward formal relations.