A planned decrease by the Obama administration in funding for democracy promotion and election support in the Middle East is prompting alarm among activists. They say cuts are likely to be more severe than first realized and that the White House appears to be giving up on democracy in the region and downgrading its advancement as a policy priority.
In the run-up to Christmas, State Department officials briefed American non-profits funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) about cuts in funding. They were told no money was being earmarked for democracy and governance assistance programs in Iraq and that, for Egypt, the administration was adopting a wait-and-see approach until after a January 15 referendum on a newly-drafted constitution.
No extra funding for democracy promotion is being earmarked for Libya, whose transition from autocracy following the toppling of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi has been plagued by lawlessness. USAID democracy programs there were cut by about half last year, following the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that led to the deaths of ambassador Christopher Sevens and three other Americans.
The total amount of foreign assistance requested by the Obama administration for the Middle East and North Africa for fiscal year 2014 is $7.36 billion, a nine percent decrease from FY2013. Of that, $298.3 million has been requested to support democracy and governance programming across the region, a cut of $160.9 million from FY 2013.
But those briefed last month by State Department officials say the decrease in funding is likely in effect to be harsher and that it may be masked when the administration goes through with plans to re-categorize so-called D&G funding by combining it with development programs. That will make it difficult to follow what actually has been spent on democracy promotion.
“We had expected big cuts in D&G to the region soon,” says Cole Bockenfeld, director of Advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington DC-based non-profit. “In many ways, there was already a widespread perception that this administration was giving up on promoting democracy in the Middle East, and major cuts to democracy funding will further confirm those fears.”
Overall, he says, “there is clearly a diminished focus on democracy best illustrated by Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly.”
In that September 24 speech the President stressed mutual security interests shared by the U.S. and countries in the region and was criticized for seemingly downplaying democracy.
When it came to Egypt, Obama made no explicit reference to standards for human rights, despite the ongoing violent dispersal by the Egyptian security forces of demonstrators protesting the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected head of state in Egyptian history.
For the region as a whole, the President cited four key American interests in the Middle East—confronting aggression from the region aimed at the U.S., maintaining an unhindered flow of oil, confronting jihadists and terrorist networks, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions. The promotion of democracy and human rights came in as a fifth fiddle.
Democracy campaigners say the United States has national interest stakes in promoting democracy and assisting countries trying to transition from autocracy can help them overcome challenges.
The decrease in overall foreign assistance to the region is due in large part to the budget challenges the U.S. is facing and the federal sequester. But the shift away from democracy promotion is made clear in the President’s budget request, which sees the proportion devoted to security assistance programs in foreign aid earmarked for the Middle East increase from 69 percent to 80 percent.
Pro-democracy advocates acknowledge Obama has a difficult task in the Middle East, trying to balance U.S. strategic and national security interests with the promotion of democracy—and that political setbacks in the region have not helped. But Thomas Carothers, a noted authority on international democracy support, says the Obama administration has always been lukewarm about democracy promotion, partly because of its association with the neo-conservative policies and freedom agenda of the Bush era.
“The administration never made a big push to increase money for democracy and governance in the Middle East after the Arab Spring,” says Carothers, a vice president at the Washington DC-based think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He points out that D&G money for Iraq in Obama’s first term was a holdover from earmarks by the Bush administration, adding, “it is notable the administration has never developed a democracy strategy for the Middle East and this further reduction of emphasis on democracy reflects how the Arab Spring has turned into a series of security headaches for the administration. The challenge the administration has not solved is how to become a credible pro-democracy actor in the region.”
In briefings, State Department officials have told democracy advocates that they are too narrowly focused. “Administration officials favorite phrase these days is that, ‘you have to widen the aperture,’” says Bockenfeld. “They say we are looking at democracy promotion too narrowly, when we focus on building up civil society groups or provide technical election support. They say if you do women empowerment programs or if you do economic opportunity programs, that all feeds into the bigger picture of democracy. They are pushing them altogether to brush over these cuts to democracy programs.”
Some activists argue the pullback from democracy promotion reflects an administration fear about antagonizing governments in the region. Others say that with democracy enlargement in the region faltering, the Obama administration is eager to shield itself from any blame for the Arab Spring failing.