Bush opens new rift over Middle East plan

Posted in Other | 10-Jun-04 | Author: Larry Elliott and David Teathe| Source: Guardian

President George W. Bush talks to French President Jacques Chirac (L) just before the plenary session at the G8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia, June 9, 2004.
• Chirac derides push for democracy • 3-point plan to reshape region

Attempts by President George Bush to exploit the diplomatic triumph of the United Nations resolution on Iraq were last night running into stiff opposition at the G8 summit, as France joined Arab countries in deriding the White House plans for a greater Middle East initiative.

Buoyed by the 15-0 UN security council vote, Mr Bush and Tony Blair were seeking a three-pronged follow-up that would involve greater Nato involvement in Iraq, plans to bring western-style democracy and economic reform to the Middle East and north Africa and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Britain and the US believed the UN show of international unity could mark the end of the west's year-long schism and draw a close to a turbulent period in which the two leaders have been dogged by violent insurrection and allegations of torture in Iraq.

"After almost two months of rough news, we had finally had a series of significant moves forward on the political side," said a senior Bush administration official.

But the tensions between the US and Europe resurfaced at the G8 summit of industrial countries in Sea Island, Georgia, when the French president, Jacques Chirac, said that greater Nato involvement in Iraq would be neither "timely nor well understood".

He also gave strong backing to those Middle Eastern countries that have called on Mr Bush to drop his support for the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in order to clear the path for peace in the region. Mr Bush by contrast was wholehearted in his support for Mr Sharon's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Mr Chirac said: "We must steer the parties back without delay on to the road to political settlement, and halt the escalation of violence." Only by doing so would the G8 "be able to dispel the hostility towards the west which is so widespread in the Middle East".

Mr Bush yesterday presented a watered down version of his plan to stabilise the region to the handful of Arab leaders that accepted invitations to attend a G8 summit for the first time. The most feted was Iraq's newly appointed prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who was praised by Mr Bush for "having the courage to stand up and lead".

Turkey and Jordan were broadly supportive of the plan. But leading Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Egypt snubbed the event to protest what they view as heavy-handed US attempts to impose western values on their cultures.

Mr Bush's plan pushes for reforms such as free elections, independent media and improved legal systems. The plan includes training for judges and lawyers, loans to small businesses and campaigns to reduce illiteracy by 20 million people. It sets a target for training 100,000 teachers.

Sensitive to Arab critics, the statement noted that "successful reform depends on the countries in the region and change should not and cannot be imposed from outside".

But Mr Chirac was also dismissive of Mr Bush's initiative. "There is no ready-made formula for democracy readily transposable from one country to another. Democracy is not a method, it is a culture. For democracy to take root solidly and durably in the Arab world, it must be an Arab democracy before all else."

Mr Chirac's downbeat assessment of progress made at the summit contrasted sharply with that of Mr Blair, who was confident that Mr Bush will be prepared to reinvigorate the "Quartet" Middle East peace process, involving the UN, the US, the EU and Russia.

Downing Street, relieved to have any small concession from Mr Bush towards multilateralism, said the Quartet would be back in Israel by the end of the month.

"Sensible people looking at the situation in the Middle East know there needs to be reform and change,"' Mr Blair said. "Now, that's not for us to dictate to people, but it is for us to help them get there."

Troops inquiry, page 2 G8 summit, page 4 Iraq crisis, page 13 Leader comment, page 25