OVER THE WEEKEND of January 10-13, 300 leaders from the United States and 38 Muslim countries convened in Doha, Qatar, for a "U.S.-Islamic World Forum." Jointly sponsored by the government of Qatar and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, the forum proved the setting for a vigorous exchange of views. The highlight of the conference: a ringing defense of America's Middle East policy delivered--in the absence of any speaker representing the Bush administration--by former President Bill Clinton.

Muslim and American delegates from the fields of politics, business, civil society, academia, and the news media entered the lion's den of Muslim mythology and resentment toward America, braving stereotypes, confronting conspiracy theories, and defying taboos. Refreshingly, most delegates seemed interested in exploring ways to ease the tensions and find common ground. Intense and candid formal sessions ended in heated discussions spilling out into hallways. In the evenings, participants clustered in every corner of the conference center to argue, cajole, agree, disagree, and exchange email addresses.

Not surprisingly, several Muslims came only to grandstand, harangue, and complain, rather than listen. One Muslim compared the Bush White House to a gang of bin Ladens. During a plenary session, a leading Pakistani journalist, when asked if he would be willing to meet with former Israeli deputy prime minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a cosigner of the Geneva Accords, swore he would never "dialogue with the Jews."

A lively clash occurred between Fox News Channel's Tony Snow and a deputy managing editor of Al Jazeera over coverage of the Middle East in the American and Arab media. Fox is as much a target of derision among Arab elites as Al Jazeera is in the United States, yet Snow's spirited defense of his channel's news coverage and programming was well received. He reminded his audience of the importance of differentiating between news and opinion. Too often, he asserted, Arabs hold the U.S. media to a high standard, but excuse the hyperbole and sensationalism of their own media. He was roundly applauded by a standing-room-only crowd of Muslim leaders, most of whom were meeting an American media personality for the first time.

But the climax of the conference came in the closing ceremony. Bill Clinton, attending at the invitation of the emir, took the stage before hundreds of Muslim leaders, scores of special guests of the emir, and millions of Arab television viewers to defend American policies in the Middle East. As conservative commentator Ralph Peters would write later in the New York Post, Clinton's audience "rose to its feet with evangelical enthusiasm--after being told precisely what they did not want to hear by a Scripture-quoting former president."

Warming to his sensitive task, Clinton made four preliminary, overarching observations: "(1) We need to do more to understand how the two major players here understand each other; (2) we need to improve our capacity for self-criticism; (3) we need to identify our common interests; and (4) we need to build the habits of mind and heart necessary to end the habits of demonizing those who are different from us." He then pushed out into territory where few Americans have ventured before an Arab audience.

Clinton pointedly called on the Muslim world to accept its share of the blame for the outbreak of extremism, and scolded Arab leaders for their own abuse of the Palestinians. He chastised Muslims for being too quick to judge America through the pinhole of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He pointed to our own shortcomings as a nation, still striving to build "a more perfect union." He resolutely defended America's friendship with Israel. "America's support for Israel is not rooted in hostility to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians," he said, and he condemned Yasser Arafat for squandering the deal he was offered at Camp David. Moreover, Clinton reminded his audience that President Bush supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

He told his audience that had he been president when the September 11 attacks occurred, he would have followed a course identical to that of his successor. He praised President Bush for trying to convince Muslims that America's war on terror is not a war against Islam. And despite all of the baiting during a question and answer session, Clinton never blamed the Bush administration for its many policy missteps. Instead, he called on his audience to join the United States in helping to bring about a "free, independent, stable, and representative government in Iraq."

Clinton's speech should be required reading for every Arab and Muslim leader--not to mention all Americans. It turned a defense into the best possible offense: Ralph Peters praised as "almost supernatural" Clinton's sense of what needed to be said and how to say it. "With art and ardor," Peters wrote, "he scolded the crowd that blaming others for their own failings was useless and destructive." It is a message few Americans could deliver to Muslim leaders--to a standing ovation.

At least as notable as Clinton's impressive performance, however, is the embarrassing fact that the administration was AWOL from Doha. Apart from the U.S. ambassador to Qatar and a regional AID officer, no senior representative of the administration attended the forum.

Worse, it appears the administration was scared off by the prospect of sharing the floor with Clinton. No fewer than six senior Bush officials had accepted invitations to the conference and been accorded formal roles--but withdrew after Clinton's attendance was announced on the conference's website. This apparent partisan pettiness is all the more depressing for being self-defeating.

No one has articulated a more far-sighted vision of engagement with the Middle East than President Bush. In November, he outlined a "forward strategy of freedom" aimed at fostering democracies throughout the Muslim world. He acknowledged that "this strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before."

But for all Bush's sweeping rhetoric, the White House seems to shrink from mounting an intellectual defense of its policies in the region. It shuns Al Jazeera and other Arab media, botches the effort to get a credible Iraqi television station going, and ignores innovative recommendations for reorganizing its public diplomacy. Given the challenges we face in realizing the president's vision, this is the time to rebuild a bipartisan consensus from which to wage a more effective battle of ideas.

Marc Ginsberg, U.S. ambassador to Morocco during the Clinton administration, is managing director of Northstar Equity Group, an affiliate of APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C.

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