The closed lunchtime meeting today between Karen Hughes and a selection of Egyptian intellectuals (the U.S.Embassy is never very imaginative in its choice, by the way) turned out to be fairly inconsequential, according to the accounts I have heard from several of the participants (you didn't know I was so well connected, did you?). The participants, all for their own good reasons, could not agree whether they should be talking about Iraq and Palestine, or about the influence the United States has on domestic Egyptian politics.
If you're interested in improving Washington's image (but frankly why should the participants care to do that?), then Iraq and Palestine are the obvious places to start. But if you're interested in improving the lot of Egyptians, it might make more sense to harangue Hughes on the way the United States deals with the Egyptian government, or free trade, or how it disburses U.S. aid. Several of the participants set out to sell Hughes their pet projects, in some cases on the spurious grounds that these held the key to salvaging Bush's reputation in these parts.
Maybe I haven't spelled this out in sufficient detail before but my views on the matter are very simple: the less U.S. intervention in the region, the better for the Middle East as a whole. This requires restraint by the United States and I have no illusions that this is likely to happen until the United States ceases to be a superpower with major interests in the region. That might be sooner than we expect.
What would this new approach entail?
Firstly, it would redress the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, which U.S. diplomatic support and military cooperation have tilted so heavily in favour of Israel. This would accelerate the search for a compromise and open the door to a recourse to independent legal arbitration, which the United States has repeatedly prevented for the past 40 years or more.
Secondly, a reduction in U.S. purchases of Middle Eastern oil (yes, even buying oil is form of intervention) would redress the imbalance of power between the governments and citizens of Arab countries with large oil reserves. The governments would be more responsive to popular demand and civil society organisations independent of the governments would have more space in which to operate. That could pave the way for peaceful transfers of power. Talking about democracy is pointless when the United States (and Europe) by their actions entrench the existing elites in their positions of power.
Thirdly, withdraw U.S. forces from all Arab countries and abandon the practice of rewarding Arab governments for the military facilities they offer in secret -- the use of bases, overflight rights, passage through waterways such as the Suez Canal, rest and recreation facilities for U.S. military personnel, and so on. At the very least, all such arrangements should be published and open to public scrutiny.
Fourthly, stop using democracy demands, human rights and weapons proliferation as sticks with which to beat Middle East governments which do not cooperate with U.S. geostrategic objectives, while ignoring abuses by government which do cooperate (commonly known, quite rightly, as the double standard). At the very least, if you want to reward democratic governments and punish undemocratic ones, do so with an even hand. That means taking a tough line against Israel's nuclear weapons programme and Israel's race-based discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens. Hopefully, if and when the previous conditions have been fulfilled, this fourth step would be superfluous.
Fifthly, restrict U.S. aid to purely humanitarian projects, without using any political criteria.
That's a tall order, of course. But my point is this -- it's intervention in the Middle East that gives the United States a bad name. Intervention, except within the strictest humanitarian limits, always distorts the regional and domestic balances of power, alienating large numbers of people. You can organise as many student exchanges or new television stations as you like, but as long as you are intervening, you're asking for trouble. Amen.