Abu Dhabi // Stability in the Gulf region is best guaranteed by "free societies", according to John Negroponte, the US deputy secretary of state. In an interview yesterday during the Forum for the Future conference in Abu Dhabi, Mr Negroponte said "democratic institutions" made the world safer and may make "a society a better citizen of the world". The deputy secretary, who is a former director of national intelligence, is representing the US at the forum, which seeks to promote democratic principles in the Middle East and North Africa.
He described the decision by the UAE to host the forum, the fifth of its kind, as "important", adding: "I'm not sure that it would have necessarily been possible a decade or two ago." The gathering, which includes representatives of the G8 powers and regional governments, is discussing proposals for a charter to govern the relationship between civil society organisations and governments. Mr Negroponte singled out the UAE for the high number of women entering higher education, saying: "I think one has to measure various indicators towards the development of a civil society and certainly the empowerment of women is a very important one indeed.
"There are others, including media and access to information, but to me, education is probably the critical one because the more your society is educated and empowered, the more they are going to insist on certain kinds of rights and privileges." Saying that building democratic institutions in the West had taken centuries to develop, he added: "But within a globalised world, information travels fast and expectations are high. Once people get a taste for freedom, whether it is political freedom or freedom of communication or freedom of travel, it's something they become accustomed to and come to expect."
The deputy secretary also defended President Bush's policies and America's role in the region, saying that "Iraq is living under democratic governance" and that Afghanistan had "been freed from the tyranny of the Taliban". "One of the deeply held beliefs of our president is that the aspiration for freedom is a universal one, not made in any particular country," he said. "It has been a policy designed to help and facilitate countries and people realise their own aspirations.
"If you look around the region there have been improvements. There is still a long way to go, but I certainly would not characterise what's happened in the last seven years as a failure." Mr Negroponte, the former US ambassador to Baghdad, has recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq and said that both countries were on the brink of an agreement that would set a date for the withdrawal of American troops by 2011.
"It is reasonable to expect our presence to decrease in numbers and change in nature," Mr Negroponte said. "We have concluded the text, but it is subject still to approval by the Iraqi cabinet and by their council of representatives." Saying the Iraqi forces would take an increasingly bigger role in providing security, he added that there was "likely to be a need for a continued US military presence but progressively more and more in a support rather than a lead role".
On Afghanistan, the deputy security played down recent concerns by British military officers that the battle against the Taliban was unwinnable, saying the reports had left him "a little bit concerned". "I really believe that it is winnable and that what it needs is both political will and continued commitment among the Nato countries to supporting Afghanistan." firstname.lastname@example.org