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Leaders bond on Mideast

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 11, 2004.

SEA ISLAND -- Sea Island's moment in the world spotlight ended Thursday with an ebullient president and a group of once-estranged allies talking about the renewed closeness of their relationship.

Along the way, the leaders of the world's largest democratic economies agreed to a Middle East initiative that some analysts said had the possibility of being "truly historic," took preliminary steps toward setting up a peacekeeping force to focus on the war-torn countries of Africa and recommitted themselves to lowering trade barriers around the world.

For President Bush, the acceptance of his Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative was clearly the highlight of the week, during which the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States huddled at an exclusive resort on Sea Island.

The agreement of the world leaders to accept that plan was a sign that the G-8 countries recognized that they have a "special responsibility to help the people of the Middle East achieve the progress they seek," the president said during a news conference.

The initiative is a wide-ranging proposal designed to help countries in the region work on democratic reforms, building upon what is being done, the president said, by people in those countries.

"I believe it's possible that there will be free, self-governing countries in this vital part of the world," Bush said. "And so do others, including the leaders that came and spoke to us."

The G-8 leaders had lunch Wednesday with the leaders of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen.

The regional initiative sets up a "Forum for the Future," which will bring together business, civil society and governmental leaders to discuss reform, with the first scheduled for later this year. The initiative also sets up programs dealing with literacy, microfinance and private enterprise.

When early drafts of that plan were leaked prior to the summit, parts of the Middle East reacted with outrage, seeing the plan as an imperialistic American attempt to impose change on the region.

During the news conference, Bush stressed that his goal was not to turn the Middle Eastern countries into America. "Reform must reflect the needs and realities of each country," he said, adding that the initiative was based on calls for reform by the people of the region.

Most of the debate about the initiative seemed to focus not on the proposal itself but on what was left out: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For many Arab and European leaders at the summit, taking steps to resolve the situation there was a necessary first step toward dealing with the broader region.

"We must mobilize ourselves much more in order to implement the road map, to bring everyone back around the table," French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac said.

In the end, the document presented to the group included a paragraph laying out the importance of dealing with the issue.

Although the president has cast this initiative as a large step forward for the region, the success of the proposal will really have to be judged by what the G-8 leaders do as the program rolls out, said John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

"It's clear as the president said that this is the work of generations," said Kirton, who has been studying G-8 summits for decades. "What we have to do is see if Tony Blair will signify that the Middle East will be a major issue."

During a press conference following Bush's remarks, British Prime Minister Blair, who will be hosting next year's summit, said African issues and climate change are the two main issues he plans for the agenda.

Africa was also a main issue at the Sea Island summit, which had the leaders of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and Algeria on hand for a working lunch Thursday. During the lunch, the leaders agreed to extend debt relief programs aimed at the poorest African countries, instructing their finance ministers to keep it going until 2006.

The G-8 countries also agreed to make more resources available for the World Bank-administered Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which has already provided about $31 billion in debt relief to 23 African countries.

Such programs are a form of "enlightened self-interest," said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

"The issue is not the issue of handout. The issue is not the issue of one group begging the other," he said. "The issue is the issue of mutual interest, mutual security, common prosperity. Because we have come to agree and to realize that if there is no peace in any part of the world, then to that extent the world has no peace."

During the week, the world powers also agreed to create a force of 50,000 to 75,000 peacekeepers -- the numbers given by the leaders varied -- which would focus on the war-torn countries of Africa.

It makes more sense, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said, for Europe and the G-8, if Africans were trained and equipped to deal with the situations that arise on the continent.

Details on how the force would be funded were not explicated at the summit, although Schroeder said that his country would make funds available from existing development agency money.

"The principal is agreed upon," he said.

Returning to the summit's roots as an economic meeting, the leaders also tacked trade issues, committing themselves to restarting the free trade talks that began at the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar in 2001.

The summit also included talk of how to ensure growth in the world economy, a discussion that seemed to fizzle a bit after Bush raised the issue of reforms in Europe's pension system and labor markets that might help the economies there. France and Germany responded with charges that the size of the U.S. budget deficit has impeded growth.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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