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U.S. Mid-East Initiative Seeks Economic, Political, Educational Reform

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2002 – Too many people in the Middle East lack political and economic freedom and basic education for the region to be prosperous and stable, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Dec. 12.

The United States is committed to change these tragic circumstances, he said in announcing a new U.S. government initiative for reform in the Middle East.

"I am announcing today an initiative that places the United States firmly on the side of change, on the side of reform, and on the side of a modern future for the Middle East, on the side of hope," Powell said at the Heritage Foundation here.

Peoples in the United States and the Western world have deep ties to the vibrant cultures of the Middle East. "Millions of us worship in churches, mosques and synagogues, professing the three great faiths that were born in the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf," Powell said. "Our language and traditions are filled with references to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, to Mecca."

Economically, the United States also has close ties to the region, Powell said, noting America exports numerous goods such as wheat, airplanes, and computers to countries in the Middle East.

For these reasons and many others, including stemming terrorism bred from radical Islam, it is in America's best interest to work with "all the peoples of the Middle East to improve their daily lives and to help them face the future with hope."

The secretary rattled off a sobering list of statistics: Fourteen million Arab adults lack jobs with sufficient pay to feed and house their families; 50 million more Arab young people will enter the crowded job market over the next eight years; Middle Eastern countries account for only 1 percent of the world's non-oil exports.

Powell called the shortage of economic opportunities "the ticket to despair." Closed political systems and abysmal education rates contribute to this shortage and only serve to foment hate and violent tendencies throughout the region.

The new U.S. initiative, formally called the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, is based on three basic tenets: economic reform, a stronger political voice for the people, and bridging the education gap, particularly for women.

The three pillars of the initiative build upon one another, Powell explained. The most immediate is economic reform. "Hope begins with a paycheck," he said.

The second pillar "will support citizens across the region who are claiming their political voices," Powell said. "Open economies, to be successful, require open political systems."

Likewise, "free political systems and open economies need educated citizens," he said, noting the programs the initiative supports will particularly emphasize educating girls and women.

He quoted an Egyptian poet as saying, "A mother is a school; empower her and you empower a great nation."

"When girls' literacy rates improve, all the other indicators of development in a country improve as well," Powell said.

The United States has earmarked $29 million for the new initiative on top of the more than $1 billion it provides in economic assistance to the region each year.

Powell said he refuses to believe democracy can't take root in the Middle East. "We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East or that there is any region in the world that cannot support democracy," he said.

He called countries such as Bahrain, Qatar and Morocco "rays of hope" for their recent "bold political reforms."

However, he readily admitted the challenges of such an ambitious initiative and said the United States is realistic about the obstacles regarding how long change will take and "the limited role that outsiders can play."

"We can and must understand that genuine Middle Eastern interest must drive this initiative," he said. "And only Middle Eastern engagement will sustain it over time."

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