Reformer Without Results

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

August 13, 2005

WASHINGTON

President Bush has done so much for women. Not at home, of course.

Women in jeans in America may have their rights eroded by an administration where faith trumps science, but women in burkas? The president can't talk enough about how important their rights are.

And in the administration's diplomacy-free foreign policy, five of its top spokesmen on the Muslim world are women: Condi Rice; Laura Bush; Liz Cheney, No. 2 in the Near East bureau of the State Department and head of the Middle East democracy project; Karen Hughes, the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy; and her deputy, Dina Powell.

W. thinks so highly of Ms. Hughes, his longtime Texas political nanny, spinner, speechwriter and ghostwriter, that he put his Lima Green Bean, as he called her when she prodded him about the environment, in charge of the critical effort to salvage America's horrendous image in the Islamic world - even though what she knows about Islam could fit in a lima green bean. Why get any Muslims involved in reaching out to Muslims? That would be so matchy.

The real role for the newly minted ambassador hasn't been defined yet, but so far it looks as if Ms. Hughes's first priority will be to take her spinning skills, honed for W. in 2000 and 2004, to improve his image, and his policies' image, on a global scale.

Just as she retooled Bush as "a reformer with results" and a "compassionate conservative," Ms. Hughes plans to inundate Muslims with the four E's: "engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment."

On Thursday, when Mr. Bush came out of his Crawford ranch with Ms. Rice - it was odd, if refreshing, to see a secretary of state wearing lilac - he once again justified the war in Iraq by talking about the treatment of women.

The way to defeat our enemies' "hateful ideology," he said, is to offer an ideology "that says to young girls, you can succeed in your society, and you should have a chance to do so." He also said, "Hopefully, the drafters of the constitution understand our strong belief that women ought to be treated equally in the Iraqi society."

Hopefully? Is that the best we can do for a country that we broke, own and are sacrificing young men and women every day to keep?

Americans like it when the president talks up women's rights in Iraq and Afghanistan, so he does it often. It helped him sell the invasions of those two countries. But W. should stop listening to "My Sharona" on his iPod and start listening to their Sharia.

The fundamentalist Taliban is recrudescing in Afghanistan, young girls in Iraq are afraid to leave their homes because there are so many kidnappings and rapes, and women's groups in Iraq are terrified that the new constitution will cut women's rights to a Saudiesque level.

Some Shiite politicians are pushing to supplant the civil courts that have long governed marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance with religious courts that are based on Sharia, or Islamic law. The New York Times reported that one of the crucial articles in various drafts of the constitution is: "The followers of any sect or religion have the right to abide by their religion or sect in their personal affairs, and a law should organize this."

That little provision could jeopardize any chance for women's equality. Clerics running religious courts based on the Koran could legitimize polygamy, honor killings, stonings and public beheadings of women charged with adultery, and divorce by "talaq" - where all a husband has to do is declare, "I divorce thee," three times.

Saddam repressed Islamic politics, so under him, Iraq was one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. It has become far more fundamentalist since the U.S. took over.

The back-to-burka trend has been widely reported throughout Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, and young women activists told The Los Angeles Times that their mothers had more freedom in the 60's.

Najla Ubeidi, a lawyer in the Iraqi Women's League, agreed: "During the 1960's, there was a real belief in improving women's conditions. We could wear what we liked, go out when we liked, return home when we liked, and people would judge us by the way we behaved."

If W. liked exercising his mind as much as his body, he could see that his mission to modernize Muslim countries is backfiring on women. The most painless way for Muslim men to prove that they have not abandoned Arab culture and adopted Western ways is to tighten the burka.

To us, the "liberated" but repressive Iraq is a paradox. To the women, it's a prison.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com