The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged congress
Hospitalized for heckling Bibi

The Emperor’s clothes are still on, for now (while his heckler is roughed up, hospitalized):

There on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu still has friends like Senator Chuck Schumer, who told a Jewish radio program that “One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be a shomer [guard]—to be a or the shomer Yisrael [guard of Israel]. And I will continue to be that with every bone in my body." With friends like these wrapped around his little finger, no wonder Netanyahu’s forcible denunciations of international law were met with such rapturous approbation by Members of Congress who applauded his rejectionism dozens of times.

This bonhomie was punctuated only once during Netanyahu’s hour-long speech, when a lone and courageous activist—Rae Abileah—from CODEPINK, disrupted it. CODEPINK organized a series of events and protests—“Move Over AIPAC”—to coincide with the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last weekend. From the gallery, Abileah shouted “No more occupation, stop Israel[i] war crimes, equal rights for Palestinians, occupation is indefensible.”

Her protest was quickly shut down in a “hey rube” moment by AIPAC attendees in the gallery who assaulted and tackled her before she was hauled away by police, causing injuries to her neck and shoulders requiring hospitalization. At the same time, Members of Congress joined the AIPAC carnie thuggery by shouting down Abileah with boos before quickly resuming to feed out of Netanyahu’s hand.

The US Congress is a bad joke

Are you kidding me — right-wingers and Israel lobbyists only to explain Egypt and Lebanon to Congress?!?

Washington, D.C.— The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday and Thursday of this week will host a two-part full committee hearing entitled “Recent Developments in Egypt and Lebanon: Implications for U.S. Policy and Allies in the Broader Middle East.”

 

Part I

 

When: Wednesday, February 9, 2011

 

10:00 A.M. (Immediately following the 10:00 A.M. Organizational Meeting)

 

Where: 2170 Rayburn House Office Building

 

Who:

 

The Honorable Elliott Abrams

 

 

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

 

Council on Foreign Relations

  

The Honorable Lorne Craner,  

 

President

 

International Republican Institute (Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor)



Dr. Robert Satloff,  

 

Executive Director

 

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

 

 

 

 
That lousy US Congress

Here's the latest bill going around Congress:

Expressing support for the State of Israel's right to defend Israeli sovereignty, to protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, and to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within reasonable time to protect against such an immediate and existential threat to the State of Israel.

Of course no such concern for the sovereign of Iran, or the protection of its civilians. The bill explicitly expresses support for an Israeli attack on Iran:

(4) expresses support for Israel's right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran, defend Israeli sovereignty, and protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within a reasonable time.

It was supported by 46 Congressmen, mostly Republicans I believe.

Meanwhile, there's also a bill supporting democracy in Egypt [link corrected], introduced by Russ Feingold and supported by John McCain. It makes general commitments to democracy and calls for greater democracy, free elections, repeal of the emergency law and other issues, but does not introduce any idea of conditionality in the relationship. In fact the only different thing it advocates from what is currently being practiced is:

(7) recalls that pursuant to the laws of the United States, organizations implementing United States assistance for democracy and governance activities, and the specific nature of that assistance, shall not be subject to the prior approval of the Government of Egypt.
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. 

Courage after the fact

Baird and UN aid workers at the American School in Gaza.

Thanks, but it comes a little bit late:

The United States should break Israel's blockade of Gaza and deliver badly needed supplies by sea, a U.S. congressman told Gaza students. 

Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, also urged President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy to visit the Hamas-ruled territory to get a firsthand look at the destruction caused by Israeli's military offensive last year. 

[...]

Baird, who has announced his retirement from Congress, told a group of Gaza students Sunday evening that the U.S. should not condone the blockade. 

"We ought to bring roll-on, roll-off ships and roll them right to the beach and bring the relief supplies in, in our version of the Berlin airlift," he said, adding that the supplies could be delivered to UN aid agencies. 

Rep. Baird has been relatively courageous about Gaza in the past, but never proposed anything of the sort before. I'm guessing it was because he was afraid of the consequences and the pervasive atmosphere of intimidation AIPAC and others exercise over Congress. This is why fighting the Israel lobby is such an important issue — to make honest, reasonable politicians able to speak out in Congress where it counts, not when they are about to retire.

See Baird's letter about Gaza here.

Iran, the US, and democracy promotion

A protestor in Tehran, from Flickr user Green Movement

POMED's account of a recent Congressional hearing on what policy to pursue towards Iran, and most notably whether and how to support its opposition movement, made for some interesting reading. Several of those testifying — former Bush administration officials, regional experts, etc. — made the case of a human rights-based approach, with the US taking steps to challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's regime on human rights grounds. The approach being suggested by, if you compile the different witnesses' testimonies to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is basically:

  1. Highly targeted sanctions to hurt the elite, esp. the IRGC;
  2. Open support for the Green Movement, which can decide whether it accepts that support or not;
  3. More funding for democracy promotion through the National Endowment for Democracy and other vehicles (although it's not clear who would eventually receive that money);
  4. A commitment to continue to side with the opposition no matter what takes place in the negotiations over the nuclear program, so that no "betrayal" of the Green Movement takes places if the regime is willing to back down;
  5. A public diplomacy campaign and commitment to internal regime change as an ultimate goal, which would also solve the nuclear issue.

I should add that Genevieve Abdo in particular was less gung-ho, and suggested that a reconciliation between the regime and opposition leaders could very well take place by the next parliamentary elections, which would leave the more radical elements of the Green Movement out on their own. I don't know much about Iran but I also see no reason a more democratic government in Iran would not be attached to a nuclear program considering the threats the country faces in the region. Logically, all of the larger Middle Eastern powers should pursue WMD programs of some sort, and indeed they all have (mostly chemical and biological for Egypt, Syria and Iraq and of course Israel's nuclear arsenal).

All of this to say: we are seeing considerable Congressional enthusiasm for a tough, democracy-driven (at least on the surface) policy towards Iran. Yet, at the same time, democracy is effectively absent from the relations between the US and Arab states (no, I will not count the State Dept. annual rights report). It is true that Iran's opposition is potentially much more credible than opposition movements in Arab countries, with seemingly real elite and popular traction. But that's also because in many respects are less democratic, and have less healthy political systems, than Iran's theocracy.

I am very supportive of the Green Movement, whatever it may actually be, and the goal putting an end to the militarization of the Islamic Republic, its corruption and its human rights abuses. I hope it's possible, and am conscious the US can influence this. But when I see US policy elsewhere in the region, I would warn Iranians: don't take this democracy talk too seriously. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (invoked in the Congressional hearing for an uncompromising stand on Iran): don't trust, and verify.

Links for January 11th

Automatically posted links for January 11th: