Amy Hawthorne's article in the September 2003 Arab Reform Bulletin, "The Middle East Partnership Initiative: Questions Abound," is a welcome recognition of President Bush's commitment to reform across the Arab world. The President's initiative represents a significant increase in assistance for most Arab countries, and aims at transforming the Middle East into a region where democratic freedoms, economic opportunity, and women can flourish. This is an ambitious agenda. We are confident that the ideas and aspirations of reformers in the region, combined with American resources and support, can help build the foundation for a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous Middle East.

The genesis of the Initiative lies in the reorientation of United States national security priorities in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. President Bush said soon after that tragic day that the war on terrorism would be fought on many fronts. It quickly became apparent that promoting reform in the Middle East must be one of those fronts because it was in the climate of repression and stagnation across the region that extremist ideologies had taken root.

When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell launched the Initiative last December, he noted that our Middle East policy had emphasized winning the war on terrorism, disarming Iraq, and bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end. He also said that "any approach to the Middle East which ignores its political, economic, and educational underdevelopment will be built on sand." The Initiative was thus devised as a critical component of America's national security strategy, and as one part of a comprehensive overall approach for the region, including the war on terrorism.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage was appointed to coordinate this effort, just as the State Department was charged to administer the successful assistance program to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union after the Cold War. We are actively coordinating with other government agencies with expertise in relevant policy areas. For example, the State Department is working with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to design technical assistance programs for countries wishing to join the Middle East Free Trade Area. We are working with the U.S. Department of Treasury to implement region-wide financial reforms to help create jobs in the Middle East. This inter-agency effort will ensure a coherent overall U.S. approach.

In designing the Initiative, we have focused on areas where our input can make a real difference. We have clustered efforts around four main "pillars" -- economic, political, education, and women's empowerment. In the economic sphere, we are focusing on programs helping trade, investment and business development; in the political sphere, on strengthening democratic institutions, good governance, and a free media; and on the education front, on access, quality and skills to better prepare youth for the twenty-first century economy. We are also designing a range of programs aimed at reducing barriers to women's full participation in society across all fronts.

But we are not starting from scratch. As part of our stepped up commitment, we are drawing on the lessons that others learned in the past. We are beginning a dialogue with voices of change to hear what they believe is needed. We are also reviewing our existing aid programs in the Middle East, to ensure that these are also geared towards fulfilling the goals of the MEPI, more directly improving the lives of the people, and producing sustainable results.

The Initiative is not just about programs, but also about sending the right political messages to the region. At the diplomatic level, we have consulted extensively with both governments and individuals to make clear both our commitment to reform and our desire to work with them in devising the right approach. No amount of money will make a difference without local support. We have made it clear that reform is a vital U.S. interest. But we have also stressed that our aim is not to impose reform, but to support and encourage efforts from within. The response from people in the region has been overwhelmingly positive.

For this is not just a partnership between governments, but between our peoples. We wish to encourage networking and cross fertilization of ideas at all levels between our societies. Thus, for example, we are helping U.S. universities to develop partnerships with Arab universities to improve the quality of instruction, research and materials for students. We are training local journalists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), so that the Arab public has more access to information and NGOs are more effective in communicating their message. Our aim is to support voices of change wherever they may be.

We are committed to ensuring that these programs will have a lasting impact. Our national security requires this. As President Bush said on the eve of the second anniversary of September 11, "By ending the hopelessness that feeds terror, we are helping the people of the Middle East and we're strengthening the security of America."

Elizabeth Cheney is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.