Breaking down US democracy policy in the Middle East

In what is becoming an annual must-read for Middle East policy wonks, POMED has published its detailed report on Financial Appropriations for Middle East Democracy for FY2011. I'll let you read its overall conclusions — quite a marked increase (32%) for MEPI funding notably — which would suggest a real commitment to one form of democracy-promotion, funding NGOs that do work on issues that deal with the wider notion of democracy endorsed by the Obama administration (away from elections, focus on women, minorities, and other aspects.) Specifically on democracy and governance programming it's 10%. It would not be entirely fair to suggest a break from the Bush administration in this regard, but rather a continuity with the post-2007 Bush policies — i.e. the post 2006 Hamas election trauma dealt to a political/electoral focus in democracy-promotion. 

And here come the caveats to this generally upbeat picture:

On the contrary, one remarkable feature of the FY11 budget is the surprising level of continuity from FY10.  Key programs that were temporarily held over one year ago have now received longer-term support, while changes made in FY10 have now been consolidated in the FY11 budget.  Last year’s version of this report remarked that the FY10 budget suggested that the new administration did in fact “take seriously the role of the U.S. in supporting democracy, governance, and human rights in the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA).”  That remains true of the new budget for FY11.

At the same time, the new budget reflects the inherent tensions between the administration’s commitment to build stronger relationships with the region’s nondemocratic governments and its stated desire to support human dignity and “broader engagement.”  There is a widespread perception among supporters of democracy that the administration is focusing too much on improving the ability of current regimes to govern while overlooking the need for pluralism and political competition.  This budget does not dispel that notion.  While the FY11 request reinforces increases in support for democracy indicated in the FY10 budget, it also upholds some troubling cuts and shifts in the approach to countries like Egypt and Jordan.

And, of course, aid policy in general to the region continues to be dominated by military aid, by a ratio of about four-to-one ($5.1bn to $1.3bn) — and probably more if you include longer-term programs like the $20bn funding program launched by Bush to encourage a regional Cold War er... to secure Arab support against Iran, and various forms of military support for Israel.

But looking at specific countries, there is cause for concern. Egypt, for instance:

Controversial changes in U.S. assistance to Egypt have been reinforced.  Funding for democracy in Egypt remains at levels sharply reduced in March 2009, which included disproportionate cuts in funding for civil society.  The decision to provide USAID funding only to organizations registered and approved as NGOs by the Egyptian government remains in place.  Finally, the administration is now exploring the establishment of an “endowment” proposed by the Egyptian government, which ultimately could remove a significant portion of U.S. economic assistance to Egypt from  normal channels of congressional oversight.

The way this was highlighted in a recent AP story claiming democracy-promotion aid to Egypt was cut is misleading, because it is not the case that:

CAIRO, (AP) – President Barack Obama has dramatically cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt, a shift that could affect everything from anti-corruption programs to the monitoring of elections.

Why? Because while USAID funding is down, MEPI funding is up. The devil is in the details, and of course this also applies at what MEPI will do with its money. The better argument is that cutting USAID funding, as well as accepting Egyptian government restrictions on who gets it, sent a political message to Cairo that Washington is backing off. I made that argument here. I would even go further and argue that what is necessary is stronger political messages, not aid that — aside from cultivating a "fifth sector" of professional democracy promoters — has limited impact in itself. 

Still the general picture towards Egypt, on balance, is actually negative. The author of the POMED report, Stephen McInerney, expands on that argument in a Foreign Policy piece about the "Mubarak Trust Fund", the unprecedented $50m endowment Congress gave Egypt. The bit about how this got through is mind-boggling and revealing of the appropriations process:

Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Ranking Member of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, led the effort within Congress to allocate funds for such an endowment. In September 2007, he offered an amendment that would have made as much as $500 million available for a "United States-Egypt Friendship Endowment" to "further social, economic and political reforms in Egypt." Then last year, Senator Gregg succeeded in including language in the FY10 omnibus appropriations bill allowing $50 million to be put into a new endowment -- but unlike the 2007 amendment, the language now made no reference to reforms. The bill contained no details about the fund's structure or purpose and most in Congress, including appropriations committee members, were unfamiliar with the endowment or its intent when it was approved.  Upon passage in December, critics quickly assumed the worst, dubbing the proposed endowment the "Mubarak trust fund." There is some irony in the fact that Congress was taking action to establish a fund proposed specifically to circumvent the oversight role of Congress.

Since then, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Egyptian government and appears to have proposed an education-focused endowment that does not alter the fundamental approach, but offers much lower funding levels than those proposed by Egypt. To be sure, supporting education in Egypt is an admirable goal for U.S. assistance, and a large multiyear program for doing so is worth considering. But there are numerous problems with this particular approach. 

I'll let you read what these problems are. But McInerney raises good questions, such as why not use Millenium Challenge Account funds that do impose conditionality and benchmarking? Also, why not involve Egyptian civil society in setting up that benchmarking? After all such benchmarking is supposed to be helping that civil society. More broadly, as I've written before, we are entering what may potentially be a season of massive electoral fraud and a transition to a new president that has a good chance of being undemocratic.

Personally, I am toying with a more radical position: why not cancel all foreign aid, economic and military, and be done with it? I am motivated by my longstanding concern about US aid to Israel as well as aid to Arab authoritarian regimes, as well as the very reasonable expectation any American might have that tax dollars are better spent at home in a time of economic crisis. I'm not against multilateral aid programs, or poverty-reduction aid in places like sub-Saharan Africa. But between the limited effectiveness of democracy-promotion aid (as opposed to a vocal democracy-promotion stance) and the sense that it has to come along with a lot of other types of aid (military, business, etc.) I'm not sure it delivers bang for the proverbial buck. I would rather support explicit positive and/or negative conditionality for military and economic aid to Egypt, based on a public criteria, as well as the threat of withdrawing diplomatic backing for Egypt's current role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — a role that arguably does more for the Egyptian regime than it does to the process. Not to mention that you don't need Egypt to talk to Hamas if you adopt a more rational policy and talk to Hamas yourself — skip the middleman!

I know this may seem like a political non-starter, for Congressional (i.e. lobbying) reasons. But in these days of Tea Party politics and massive deficits, cutting aid and focusing on political methods of democracy-promotion may just start to look feasible enough.  

On a related note, check out the notes on a recent POMED conference for the launch of the report, where you can find amusing tidbits such as that a internet freedom program focused on Iran is called the Near East Regional Democracy (NERD). Bureaucrats have all the fun.