The original document, intended for internal distribution among designated senior officials of the G8 (group of eight industrialised countries), was meant to signal a new US plan for reform of the Middle East and some other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.

Championed by the Bush administration, the draft US policy is intended to address the lack of democracy and growing discontent felt largely in the Arab world, but to include other Muslim majority countries they believe face similar conditions.

The plan was believed to have been assembled with little or no consultation with the governments concerned.

The document's reform agenda received a negative response from the majority of Arab leaders and European governments.

Other countries

A number of non-Arab countries such as Afghansitan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey have been mentioned as candidates for the initiative.

Israel may also be included.

However, speculation is growing that the US plan may also take in other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and the central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

According to the US State Department's Bureau for Near East Affairs, which is developing the initiative, the countries to be included are still "a work in progress".

Steven Kisset, a programme director at the bureau, told Aljazeera.net: "A number of proposals are still being looked at and are on the table to be discussed by the G8 countries."  

Some commentators have said that the new initiative is designed to intensify strategic US control over many Muslim nations and those that have a significant US military and business presence - furthering US interests - evident in central Asia, where expanding military bases and burgeoning new oil resources combine.

These efforts and others have represented the backdrop to the GMEI, which is expected to be officially launched on 1 June 2004 at the next G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia.

The leaked document produced a flurry of complaints and outright hostility and rejection from many Arab governments already stirred by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Arab anger

While US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to calm Arab leaders' fury by assuring them that the US did not intend to impose political reforms on them, he insisted that the Bush administration would continue to move forward in its efforts.

Colin Powell says the US will
continue to push GMEI forward

Meanwhile, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman was dispatched to the region to clarify the US position and promote the plan.

The GMEI envisages simultaneous reforms in three areas: to promote democracy and good governance, economic opportunities and, finally, knowledge within society. 

Some analysts argue that the initiative was formulated on the basis and recommendations of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - a US State Department plan launched in December 2002 - and from the UN Arab Human Development Reports of 2002 and 2003.

'Freedom deficit'

It is also believed that the GMEI was the latest of a Middle East reform campaign revealed during a speech by US President George Bush in November 2003 before the most influential neoconservative organisation in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

In his speech, Bush spoke of a "freedom deficit" in the Middle East, a phrase taken from the UN report and which was utilised in the GMEI document. 

At the 20th anniversary of the launch of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which is based at the AEI, Bush said: "Our commitment to democracy is tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.

"Our commitment to democracy is tested in the Middle East"

George Bush,
US president

"In many nations of the Middle East, democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free."

Bush went further in his state of the union address on 20 January 2004, when he called for the expansion of NED's budget for 2005, with added funds of $40 million to be channelled entirely to the Middle East.

Money for democracy

The NED itself has sparked fierce criticism from governments and organisations around the world, who charge it with collecting US taxpayers' money to promote favoured politicians, political parties and to inject money and influence into the domestic elections of foreign countries.
 
In the US, such financial influence by outside countries into US domestic politics is considered illegal.

But Bush vowed to send "a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, free markets, free press and free labour unions in the Middle East".

Also, in January, the US Office of Management and Budget which assists the president in overseeing the financial spending of federal government programs, announced the allocation of $458 million to be spent on "democracy promotion" in Iraq in the first six months of this year.

Lukewarm response 

Arab leaders such as Egypt's Husni Mubarak insisted that the US should play the role of partner and not enforcer of reforms.

Other Arab leaders, such as Syria's Bashar al-Asad, also criticised the plan because of the political affiliation of its champions: prominent neoconservative figures in Washington, the same neocons who promoted the war on Iraq.

Egypt's Mubarak sees a different
role for the US in the Middle East

Some of these figures - the subject of much controversy - are believed to be instrumental in forging present US foreign policy in the Middle East: Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Under-Secretary of Defence Douglas Feith, Richard Perle (Defence Policy Board), David Wurmser (Vice-President Dick Cheney's adviser) and Danielle Pletka, (a vice-president of AEI) are some of the more visible.

Responding to the initiative, Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, wished that the American initiative would "never see the light of day".

Lacking logic

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa accused the GMEI of lacking "a lot of logic in its premises".

"I do not think there is any logic in piling up Morocco and Bangladesh in a vision of that sort," he said in an exclusive interview.

"It is illogical to speak of an initiative which requires the cooperation of the Arab states without consulting those very states on the nature and details of such ideas.

"It is unacceptable to attempt to dictate to peoples the developmental paths they should take. So, in short, I think this sort of initiative won’t fly the way it was launched and promoted."

Statements made by top US officials in reference to the GMEI continued to flow after the leak of the original plan.

US position

On 24 February, in an interview with the US-based Arabic Al Hurra television, Powell said: "What we are trying to do is help each of them [countries], in the way that they choose, to move forward down a path that I think is in their interests to move down."

The GMEI was not forged, he added "for the purpose of the United States imposing anything on anyone.

"In fact, it won't work unless the nations in the region find it in their interests to move in this direction, and we hope that they will."

Then, on 1 March, Powell, following a meeting with top EU officials at the State Department said that the US and the European Union "see great opportunity and scope for cooperation on a Greater Middle East Initiative in the run-up to the G8, US-EU and NATO summits" to be held in June.

US officials are comparing the initiative to the Helsinki agreements of 1975 which allowed for the reformation of much of Eastern Europe, then under the shadow of stifling communist rule.

Other American themes highlighted in the plan include restarting world trade talks, and action to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.