Arab newspapers dismiss speech as `empty rhetoric'

Bush's vision for Mideast harshly criticized by Iran

Saudis play up positives

November 08, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Commentators across the Middle East yesterday largely dismissed President Bush's speech calling for wider democracy in the region, labeling it something for domestic consumption to justify the war in Iraq rather than signaling a real change in U.S. policy.

Political analysts, while welcoming the idea of ending decades of support for dictatorships, dwelt on the usual gap between ideals and what the Bush administration actually does in the Middle East.

The most common conclusion was that until the United States does something concrete to force Israel to free millions of Palestinians kept under military occupation, all U.S. statements about greater democracy and freedom will ring hollow.

The vision that Bush painted was an appealing one, wrote Sahar Baasiri, a columnist in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, "But before it is translated into tangible policies that deal with real problems, it will remain boring, empty rhetoric."

The problems Bush talked about - recognizing that the United States was wrong in backing repressive regimes because in the end that produces instability - are not new to the people of the region, she said.

"We are familiar with these diseases, and we recognize his role and the role of successive U.S. administrations in spreading and sustaining them," she wrote.

Bush's speech was broadcast late in the day on Thursday, just as much of the region was sitting down to break the daily fast during Ramadan. It also came on the eve of the Muslim Sabbath, when few newspapers publish, so official comments were sparse.

Iran, however, condemned Bush's remarks as interference in its internal affairs.

"No individual, or group, has ever commissioned Mr. Bush to safeguard their rights, nor is he responsible for supporting anyone here," Hamidreza Asefi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement carried by the Islamic Republic News Agency. "And basically, keeping in mind the dark record of the United States in suppressing the democratic movements around the globe, he is not in a position to talk about such issues."

The irony was not lost on some commentators that Bush mentioned steps toward reform in friends such as Saudi Arabia, viewed basically as a repressive monarchy, while demanding freedom in Iran, which has an elected if ineffective parliament and raucous internal political debates.

The Saudi press, however, took what faint praise there was in the speech and ran with it, basically ignoring the underlying message of pressure for greater change in the kingdom and neighboring states.

"Bush Commends Kingdom for Democratic Reforms" read the headline in the English-language Arab News and echoed in the Arabic headline in its larger sister paper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, published throughout the Arab world.

Some commentators did view the speech as marking a significant change: That Bush was signaling that the United States would no longer conduct business as usual.

"It would be a radical change in American foreign policy to extend a hand beyond the existing regimes, the traditional friends," said Omar Baghour, a Saudi economist who writes a newspaper column for Al-Madina, speaking by telephone from Jidda. There was no mention of the speech in the official press in Syria, where most newspapers do not publish on Friday, nor in Egypt, where those that did publish treated it largely as a straight news story.

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