Event Summary – The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017

On Tuesday, April 26, 2016, POMED hosted a panel discussion on its new report, “The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.” The annual report, by POMED’s Executive Director Stephen McInerney and its Deputy Director for Policy Cole Bockenfeld, provides a detailed analysis of U.S. foreign assistance for democracy and governance, as well as for security and economic development, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)  from spring 2015 through spring 2016. This year’s report examines the executive branch’s foreign assistance request to Congress for MENA for the coming Fiscal Year (FY 2017), highlights significant changes from last year’s request, and notes important shifts in U.S. assistance policy and democracy-related diplomacy in the region. The report draws upon numerous interviews with officials in different parts of the U.S. government, Arab activists, and members of the U.S. democracy-promotion community. The April 26 event featured remarks by McInerney, Bockenfeld, Al Arabiya columnist Hisham Melhem, and Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy Tamara Cofman Wittes.

McInerney opened the panel by describing four key findings of the report. First, space for independent, pro-democracy civil society organizations continues to close. In the past year, several Arab governments have brought new legal cases against civil society activists, have sought to prevent more civil society groups from accepting foreign funding, and in some cases have shuttered civil society organizations altogether. Egypt’s crackdown has received the most international media attention, but worrying restrictions on freedom of association also have occurred recently in Jordan, Libya, and Morocco. Not only is the closing space making U.S. assistance for civil society groups in MENA even more difficult, but increasingly closed environments in the region’s authoritarian states also has rendered even some less sensitive U.S.-funded programs for health and education harder to implement in certain countries, such as Egypt.

Second, McInerney said, the proportion of U.S. foreign assistance to MENA devoted to security continues to rise. In 2009, President Barack Obama’s first year in office, military and security aid comprised nearly 69 percent of all bilateral assistance to the region ($7.1 billion in total, including aid to Israel), with just 7 percent ($483.5 million) designated for democracy and governance programs. Now, the Obama administration’s FY17 budget request seeks $7.3 billion in total aid for the region, with military and security assistance representing 73 percent of this, or $5.4 billion, and only 5.8 percent, or $427.5 million, for democracy and governance. The top Arab recipients of U.S. bilateral security assistance (per the latest figures) are Egypt ($1.3 billion), Jordan ($396 million), Iraq ($396 million), and Lebanon ($103 million). In addition, the Obama administration has overseen more than $100 billion in American arms sales to the Middle East, even more than the massive weapons sales during the George W. Bush administration.

Third, McInerney pointed out that actual U.S. spending on democracy and governance programs in MENA—the expenditure in the countries themselves of funds appropriated for these programs—has shrunk. In FY15, the Obama administration requested from Congress $442 million in democracy and governance funding for MENA, but according to a February 2016 State Department estimate, has spent only $180.4 million of the funds appropriated for that fiscal year. This drop is due to the difficult operating environment in many MENA countries and the tumult and conflict across the region, but it also reflects U.S. reluctance to push back against authoritarian Arab allies that oppose many democracy programs. McInerney noted a “disappointing trend” with regard to the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), previously the lead U.S. government program supporting MENA reform and civil society. Partly as a result of MEPI’s recent dissolution as a stand-alone office in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau (NEA) of the State Department, the Initiative has become a less bold and less innovative pro-democracy voice and funder. With congressional support waning and its regional identity and role weakened, MEPI’s future looks increasingly uncertain. The Obama administration’s FY17 $60 million budget request for MEPI, the lowest ever, indicates this diminished role. (The highest MEPI request was during the George W. Bush administration for $120 million, for FY07; the Obama administration’s highest request was $86 million for FY10 and FY11.)

Fourth, McInerney noted a positive development: in the past year, Congress has more than doubled aid to Tunisia, from $61.4 million in FY15 to more than $140 million in FY16—exceeding the administration’s request to Congress by approximately $7 million. This increase reflects a growing recognition by policymakers of the need to provide stronger support for Tunisia’s promising but shaky democratic transition. While the United States still needs to do much more for Tunisia, especially to encourage its leaders to undertake difficult economic, security and political reforms, the growth in assistance is commendable and important, McInerney argued.

Bockenfeld focused his remarks on U.S. engagement with key authoritarian Arab allies over the past year. He noted that the evident friction between the Obama administration and its traditional Arab allies, including Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Egypt—over Syria, Iran, and the fallout of the Arab Uprisings—has not led the administration to decrease aid or overall support for these governments. On the contrary, Bockenfeld argued: U.S. weapons sales to the GCC countries have soared into the tens of billions of dollars, and in FY16 Jordan will receive $1.6 billion, of which an estimated $612 million is security aid, surpassing Egypt as the largest Arab recipient of U.S. aid.

Concerning Egypt, Bockenfeld said that as the country is experiencing the most repressive period in its modern history, “shutting down every avenue of dissent,” the U.S. government has been unable to formulate a coherent policy response, diplomatically and assistance-wise. While in the past year some members of Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry occasionally have criticized Egypt’s human rights crisis, more often U.S. officials have voiced unwarranted praise for Egypt and have pursued a “business-as-usual” approach with the military-backed government in Cairo. Despite the deepening repression, the Obama administration has resumed all of the annual $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Egypt, after suspending some weapons deliveries from 2013-2015 over human rights concerns. Recent U.S. efforts to restructure the FMF program starting in FY18 have been met so far with resistance from some Egyptian officials. Meanwhile, congressional concerns over Egypt’s violations of the Leahy Law—including possible misuse of U.S.-origin equipment, human rights violations by security forces receiving U.S. security aid, and the Egyptian government’s refusal to grant U.S. officials access to the Sinai to monitor the end-use of U.S.-supplied weapons—could affect the provision of security assistance to Egypt. Yet, neither Congress nor the executive branch has developed an effective response to these concerns and the FMF continues to flow. Bockenfeld noted that the U.S. economic assistance relationship with Egypt—currently worth $150 million a year—is under strain as well. According to Congress, some $500 to $700 million in already-appropriated economic aid is backlogged, in part due to a lack of cooperation from the Egyptian government on some development programs.

Melhem began his remarks with a recap of what he called President Obama’s “growing disillusionment with the region” since taking office. He compared Obama’s original “high hopes…and soaring speeches,” such as his 2009 Cairo address, to the subsequent reality of a “dysfunctional Arab world with fraying civil societies and repressive, ossified regimes.” At the beginning of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, said Melhem, Obama put the United States on the side of those who wanted to topple regimes and pursue a democratic future. But resurgent authoritarianism and the outbreak of violence in several countries, especially the outbreak of a vicious war in Syria, soon led to a change of heart and a deepening cynicism about the Arab world that continues to influence many of Obama’s regional foreign policy decisions. Melhem argued that the President’s actions and inactions have “contributed to the unraveling of the Middle East,” above all in Syria, and will be felt by the region and by the United States for decades to come.

Melhem offered several examples of what he sees as a passive and cynical U.S. policy toward democracy and human rights in the region, beyond the lack of U.S. response to stop atrocities in the Syrian war—itself originally an uprising by ordinary Syrians against violent repression and severe rights abuses by their government. The expulsion from Bahrain of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski in 2014 was a particular low point for U.S. human rights policy in MENA, he contended. This unprecedented incident, Melhem said, was met only with a “lame sentence [from the U.S. administration] expressing concern.” Melhem decried Obama’s willingness to “accept the status quo” in the Arab world. He recommended that the next U.S. administration should condition assistance to Arab allies based on their governance and human rights performance, and “use the same yardstick” to measure human rights violations by governments in the region, whether U.S. ally or antagonist.

Wittes highlighted a “primary problem” of U.S.-Middle East policy: the U.S. failure to respond effectively to the breaking of the social contract between Arab leaders and their people, as illustrated powerfully in 2011 in the Arab Uprisings. Despite the failings of U.S. policy, however, Wittes said that the responsibility lies “first and foremost” with ruthless authoritarian leaders like Bashar Al Assad and Moamar Qaddafi who destroyed their countries’ social foundations and then responded to their citizens’ grievances with force—setting the stage for the chaos that we now see across the region.

Wittes also spoke about the backlash against independent civil society and foreign funding that has become acute in much of the Middle East. Authoritarian regimes want to shut down independent civic actors, but the United States has a responsibility to bolster civil societies in such places. The United States has a stake in the way these societies govern themselves, because civil society organizations are essential to the functioning of “complex modern societies” and bad governance can lead directly to regional instability. She argued that the United States must support Arab civil society, especially organizations defending democracy and human rights, not because these organizations necessarily are large or popular (Arab governments do their best to thwart citizens from joining them and denigrate these groups as traitorous) but because they are defending crucial democratic values and norms. In the United States, she noted, some of the most prominent civil society organizations such as the ACLU play a vital role despite having a relatively small membership within the context of the overall U.S. population. Wittes described the importance of civil society in post-conflict scenarios, when societies reflect on how to recover and reconstruct themselves.

Finally, Wittes said, during the Bush and the Obama administrations the notion that Arab dictators make for better political allies has become pervasive—there is still insufficient confidence in the foreign policy community that the alternative to authoritarian regimes is better for the United States. Wittes described this view as short-sighted, emphasizing that the longer the United States postpones genuine democracy promotion in this region, the more catastrophic the impact will be when unsustainable repressive regimes finally collapse, Libya being just one painful example.