At-Turath Newspaper
Los Angeles, California
September 26, 2004

Maalouf: The Change in Iraq Will Reach Both Ends of the Fertile Crescent

LOS ANGELES - Wasim Kalifeh

In an exclusive interview to At-Turath, Mr. Walid Maalouf, the Lebanese born director of 'Public Diplomacy For Middle Eastern & MEPI Affairs' (which falls under the Department of State's USAID division), spoke to us about the agency's role, president's Bush's initiatives, and the current events in the Middle East.

Can you please give us a brief narrative of where you are ?

When you come to America you make a decision. Either you want to fully integrate into American society and the political system; or you just want to live here and keep your mind and heart in your ancestral country. I choose the first. I have worked hard, and rather than stand on the sidelines, I have participated in the political process, which has lead me to where I am today. Nothing comes easy in America .

What personal satisfaction does your current position give you? Please briefly elaborate.

America has been good to me and I want to give back. After more than 15 years in the private sector, and, after 9/11, I felt a responsibility to make a difference. I believe in President Bush's initiatives for the Middle East . I want to help him win the war against terrorism and to realize the democratization of the Middle East . I will do my best to catalyze the broadest spectrum behind democratic reform within the region and promote a better understanding of the policy goals of President George W. Bush.

What is USAID and its purpose?

The U.S. Agency for International Development is the lead agency for the U.S. Government providing economic development and humanitarian assistance to people around the world. By creating the conditions to help countries move from poverty to prosperity, we serve both the American public and millions of people living in countries in development and transition. The total budget of USAID has grown in the last three years from $8 billion to $ 14 billion. You can clearly see the commitment of our Administration toward a better way of life for all human beings around the world.

According to the information I have, USAID is spending millions of dollars on many projects in the Middle East , and the Arab World, yet, there seems to be little knowledge of it, or in some instances intentional ignorance of it in the region. Why is that so in your opinion?

Several reasons: A) Much of our work is done through partner organizations - institutional contractors and non-governmental organizations - and USAID is not often credited for our signification contribution. This is something we're working on and hopefully will see some changes. B) Some Arab countries would refuse to allow any declaration of the large projects we finance. C) At the Department of State and USAID there is a sense of not taking credit publicly for programs we sponsor. I think this is changing somewhat nowadays and our public diplomacy is working toward more public acknowledgement of the work we're doing.

Let's talk about MEPI. Why did the press and/or the governments of the Arab World drop the word "partnership" when referring to the initiative? Was that intentional or a given reflex reaction, or both?

MEPI started 3 years ago, still exists and no one has dropped the "partnership" aspect out of it. But President Bush started another initiative called the Greater Middle East and lately and after the G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia the name changed to the Broader Middle East and North Africa in an effort to engage our European allies. The MEPI program is still going strong; it is managed by an office in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State; its director is Alina Romanowski. State, USAID, and other U.S. government agencies are working closely together to make this Presidential initiative a success.

President Bush has repeatedly said in many occasions that there is a difference between Islam the religion, which he respects, and extreme militant interpretation of this great religion. Yet, somehow, US policies are very unpopular in the Arab World. Why is that so in your opinion?

President Bush said several times that Islam is a great religion, and upon the 9/11 disaster President Bush made a trip to the local mosque in Washington to send exactly this signal to all Americans. Dr. Rice said that first we must work to dispel destructive myths about American society and about American policy. Second, we must expand dramatically our efforts to support and encourage the voices of moderation and tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim world. So, as you see, there is much effort underway, especially since President Bush is the first US President to call for a Palestinian State living side by side with Israel in security, peace and prosperity. I call on all the Middle Easterners to realize this fact and act accordingly.

What do you say to those who accuse the US in interfering in the Arab World?

The United States has many friends in the Arab world. President Bush said that the United States has no desire to dominate, nor ambitions of becoming an empire. Our aim, he said, is a democratic peace - a peace founded upon the dignity and the rights of every man and women. So, I hope the people of the Middle East will see this and understand our actions. We are there to help them and make their lives better.

President Bush's MEPI talks about fostering and rooting democracy in the ME, yet opponents to this initiative claim that previous US administrations have supported some "less-than democratic" regimes in the region that are in power today. What do you say to them?

We are not responsible for the past actions of others. Today President Bush has a forward strategy of freedom and he means it; and, most importantly, he is sincere about it. The President believes that for the last five decades, America and our allies excused and accommodated the lack of freedom in the Middle East, hoping, as President Bush said," to purchase stability at the price of liberty" . Of course, we got neither. And Dr. Rice in a speech before the U.S. Institute of Peace elaborated more about the new policy.

According to the reports I have, the Bush administration has promised more to the Palestinian cause than any other US administration. It has also done and invested in many projects in the region than any other previous administration. Yet, there remains a high level of mistrust and misunderstanding about the administrations' role and position. Why is that so, and is that particularly frustrating to you, and the State Dept.?

You are right and Chairman Arafat said recently that he made many mistakes regarding this issue. It is important that the Palestinians realize that the road map is the only way to solve this centuries-old problem, and I hope they will stop all suicide bombings and bring new leadership to tackle this issue. On the other hand Dr. Rice said: " Israel must meet its responsibility under the road map and help create conditions for a democratic Palestinian state to emerge". So you really need two to tango.

Can you give an idea of the type and magnitude of projects that USAID is currently seeing through in the West Bank and Gaza ?

The USAID yearly program is $75 million. The West Bank and Gaza occasionally receive supplemental funding from the US . Government, for example following the Wye River there was $400 million in 1999 and $50 million in 2003 in response to the formation of a new Palestinian government. Since 1993, Palestinians have benefited from more than $1.3 billion in six USAID programs: Economic Growth, Water Resource Development, Democracy and Governance, Maternal and Child Healthcare, Community Services and Higher Education and Training.

Is there an appreciation, and understanding from the Palestinian side for this effort?

We hope so. USAID is the largest single donor in the West Bank and Gaza and I believe the Palestinian officials are aware of our activities. The average Palestinian knows about and appreciates USAID when launching a project in their villages. For example in the city of Jenin they renamed a street " Palestinian American Friendship Street ". The work is done through NGOs and they are much more visible than us. We hope through our new Public Diplomacy for Middle Eastern & MEPI Affairs we will be able to raise awareness of USAID's efforts and projects.

What, if any, should those who are calling for reform and democracy in the Arab World should watch out for in the next year or so?

I believe that the people of the Middle East are eager for change. The working class, the educated and the business community are ready for democratic reforms and better economies and ways of life. No one puts it better than President Bush when he said in Istanbul : "In their need for hope, in their desire for peace, in their right to freedom, the peoples of the Middle East are exactly like you and me. Their birthright of freedom has been denied for too long. And we will do all in our power to help them find the blessings of liberty"

Is Iraq the ideal starting point to foster and promote democracy in the Arab World, or is it Lebanon as many have argued given its long history of its "quasi-democratic" system, and public mood?

No doubt that Lebanon had a long experience in democracy, and the civil society is much better organized than any other country in the region. In my opinion Lebanon might have been the launching pad for democracy in the region, but obviously we remain deeply concerned by the current course of events. Our view is very clear: that Lebanon and the Lebanese should be able to determine their own future, free of any and all outside interference. Iraq , however, is in a central and unique place in the Fertile Crescent , and change there could reach both ends of the crescent.

Implementing and rooting democracy in a region such as the Middle East will undoubtedly take many years. Is the Bush administration and subsequent administrations committed to this undertaking, and is congress committed to continue funding it until it sees it through?

The Bush administration is totally committed to the Broader Middle East and North Africa 's Initiative. In its recent meeting the G8 allies pledged their support and called for specific programs to create jobs, increase access to capital, improve literacy and education, protect human rights and make progress toward democracy. Congress is calling for hearings to evaluate our public diplomacy efforts. So, yes, this is a huge undertaking and President Bush and our allies around the world are serious about it.

Democracy and Reform supporters in the region are concerned that they maybe left out of the equation, and possibly lose the current support should the current players in the region reach an understanding. What can you say to them to address their concerns?

President Bush is trying by all means possible to convince all parties in the Middle East that the new policy of pursuing a forward strategy of freedom is the answer to so many needs in the region. I think many people are seeing this, and, in my judgment, it is going to have a greater affect in the years to come.