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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Building from scratch

Are Middle Easterners-and Americans-ready for a new Marshall Plan?

FOR SUCH A BLOCKBUSTER ANNOUNCEMENT, IT received precious little media attention. I picked it up on only one weekend newscast.

Admittedly, it was only about the reshaping of the whole Middle East. In an address to the National Association of Black Journalists, President Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, sketched the outlines of an ambitious blueprint to do for the 22 nations of that region what the United States and NATO did for Europe after World War II.

Integral to the concept is that it be seen not just as a mopping-up effort after a war-but rather as the restructuring of the roots of the culture itself. It's with that in mind that some critics say the European analogy is all wet, and that the whole assignment is hopelessly out of reach.

What was Ms. Rice's proposal?

She spoke candidly of the administration's "ambitions to transform a troubled region of the world," a "predominantly Moslem region ... blighted by hopelessness and a freedom deficit." And she asked for a "generational commitment" to do for that region what the United States had done half a century ago to help produce "a free, democratic, and prosperous Europe."

Ms. Rice said specifically she was referring far less to a large and enduring military presence than to the need for "America and its allies to engage broadly on the diplomatic and economic fronts, and to help bring about the institution of a civil society" across the Middle East.

Ms. Rice pressed her EuropeÐMiddle East analogy by saying that the famed Marshall Plan that was so crucial to Europe's recovery was not immediately envisioned at war's end. "It was actually a response to failed efforts to rebuild in 1945 and 1946," she said, pointing out that Nazi leftovers worked for months to sabotage the allied victory just as Baathist and Fedayeen leftovers have done recently in Iraq.

But especially, she stressed, "we must never, ever indulge the condescending voices who allege that some people in Africa, or in the Middle East, are just not interested in freedom, or culturally not ready for freedom, or they just aren't ready for freedom's responsibilities." The people of the Middle East do have a desire for such freedom, she claimed. "We have an opportunity and obligation to help them turn that desire into reality-and that is both the security challenge and the moral mission of our time."

Ms. Rice's proposals received an impressively warm response. Samuel Berger, who had held Ms. Rice's position in the Clinton administration, called it "an appropriately ambitious and conservative vision, both at the same time"-recognizing the corrosiveness of the present situation in the Middle East, but acknowledging that we face a long-term enterprise.

But even some who applauded the loftiness and grandeur of the vision had questions about its achievability. They tended to suggest two big disparities between post-war Europe and today's Middle East.

First is the fact that European countries had enjoyed, prior to the two World Wars, a significant stretch of experience in self-government. Such experience is either primitive or nonexistent in the Middle East. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says "the raw materials of democracy building simply aren't there" the way they were in Europe 50 years ago.

The second big disparity is harder for most people to discuss in public. It is that the ideology to be transformed is not just a political system of thought, but all of that plus the Muslim religion itself. "The agenda," said Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia on PBS last week, "and it's politically inconvenient to use this term, is for the Muslim world. It is not just for the Middle East. It extends to Pakistan; it extends to Indonesia and Malaysia."

If problems like that on the other side of the world are huge, Ms. Rice and her boss, the president, have a few challenges here on this side as well. Do the American people still have a sense of mission concerning the rest of the world-and if they do, are Mr. Bush and his team up to the task of focusing them on that mission? Can Mr. Bush, as Mr. Berger says, be "educator-in-chief" as well as he has been commander-in-chief? Can he spell out this vision so that people are ready to invest perhaps the next 25 years in bringing it about?

And then there is the unsettling bottom-line question: When we finally have the attention of the Iraqis and the Saudis and the Syrians and the Palestinians, etc., and we tell them that we have a model of what we'd like them to consider, just what will that model of democracy look like when we hold it up for them to examine?