POMED Notes: “Moving Beyond Rhetoric: How Should President Obama Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?”
On January 30, 2013, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted an event entitled “Moving beyond Rhetoric: How Should President Obama Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?” The event launched POMED’s new publication, which highlights recommendations from leading voices in the field on how President Obama should adjust his policies toward the Middle East in his second term. The event featured a panel discussion with Larry Diamond, Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law at Stanford University, Esraa Abdel Fattah, Youth Committee Member of the Al-Dostour Party of Egypt, and Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of POMED, moderated the discussion.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for the PDF.
Stephen McInerney introduced the panel and opened the discussion by contextualizing POMED’s publication. He referred to POMED’s publication at the beginning of the president’s first term, which urged him to speak clearly on policy toward the Middle East. He stated that the president has provided “lofty, ambitious rhetoric” but little follow-through and few tangible policies to accompany his words. He also highlighted several dominant themes in the essays in the publication, including the need to take bolder steps, to engage more broadly with the region, and to use more leverage and incentives.
Larry Diamond summarized his advice to the Obama administration by saying, “Get serious.” He called for the administration to lay out specific principles and strategies that go beyond rhetoric and to display “a clear, unequivocal unwillingness to accept pseudo-democracy as democracy.” Diamond emphasized the need for country-specific strategies that reflect the distinctive situations of each country. He claimed the U.S. has more leverage in the region than we often recognize, particularly with regards to Bahrain, and the administration could do more to use this leverage to affect change. He said the U.S. must not repeat its past mistake of “uncritically embracing whoever happens to be in power.”
Esraa Abdel Fattah emphasized the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with the Egyptian people. She stated that the administration focuses on government-to-government relationships rather than recognizing that significant power lies with the people and cultivating relationships with citizens. She urged the administration to focus its efforts on development projects that will affect the daily lives of the Egyptian people rather than continuing to provide traditional aid. Fattah also expressed frustration that she and other Egyptians have been making these arguments for two years and there has been no change in U.S. policy.
Brian Katulis gave several recommendations for moving beyond rhetoric in the Obama administration. He urged that we abandon labels like “Arab Spring” and “Arab Awakening” to more clearly understand the fluid battle for legitimacy taking place in the region. He reminded the audience that historical evidence indicates that revolutions do not “automatically lead to democracy” and that “we can’t stop what’s coming.” He called for efforts by NGOs to engage a broader range of personalities in the U.S. government. Katulis also argued that the U.S. needs an individual in the government to “devise an integrated strategy.” He likened this hypothetical person to John Brennan in their ability to summon and integrate the capacities at their disposal with a high level of influence in the administration. He also said there was a need for more robust policy tools for the government and NGOs. Katulis echoed Diamond’s call for country-specific strategies and argued for the necessity of a broader strategy for the region that places political reform in the context of our other strategic interests rather than focusing on a select set of policies (like prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon).
Following the presentations, McInerney asked the panelists several questions. Diamond responded to McInerney’s request for a suggestion of a new apparatus for assistance by saying that conditionality for economic aid and a sense of urgency from an influential U.S. official were important. McInerney asked Katulis to comment on the issue of long-term vs. short-term views of the region in U.S. policy. Katulis said that he believes U.S. policymakers can make policies with both views in mind but that they are not very good at doing so. McInerney asked Fattah about her priority recommendations on issues that must be addressed by the administration. She said the Egyptian people are still searching for social justice. She argued that the people need to be able to feel and see projects happening and therefore it is time to be concerned about economic issues rather than political challenges.
During the question and answer session, Fattah responded to a question regarding the sentiment of the Egyptian people saying she feels they are hopeful. When asked how the United States can approach Egypt when there is significant hate toward America on the ground there, she said it is important to see a shift in the image of the United States there and the responsibility for this lies with U.S. policymakers. She suggested new projects and dialogues to engage civilians as ways to improve this image.
Responding to a question on closing the gap between analysis and recommendations and making a government focus on issues important to a population, Diamond said there must be a sense of priority and urgency at the top in order to shift focus. Diamond also responded to Fattah’s earlier statement on the type of aid the U.S. provides for Egypt by stating that there must be financial flows and partnerships with Egyptian private enterprise in order to make the kinds of projects she suggested sustainable. He argued that we cannot ignore the political issues in the region. Katulis addressed the economic policy questions by saying the administration has tied all aid to an IMF deal, but assistance cannot be a “one-off” thing. He said the issue concerns not just the conceptualization of an assistance program but also the management of a political agenda at home, claiming, “We’re stuck in Egypt and stuck in the U.S.”
Ari Ratner, a former White House appointee at the State Department, argued that our bureaucracy is preventing effective action in the region. He stated that we shouldn’t be pushing for country-specific strategies and should instead focus on developing flexibility of response. He argued that the policymaking community needs to adapt existing tools to work on the new issues we face in the region. Diamond addressed Ratner’s point by agreeing that lack of flexibility has been a concern for some time. He said that if we cannot achieve flexibility, we must think creatively to find workarounds that will increase agility. He cited “modest” new initiatives with low costs, such as an increase in online higher education, as a possible means to begin addressing the lack of flexibility in policymaking.
McInerney responded to questions on problems of in-country accountability for use of foreign aid and rebalancing aid to the region by commenting that Senator John Kerry was one of voices calling for rebalancing in the early stages of the Arab Spring, saying it will be interesting to see if he pursues this goal as Secretary of State. Katulis added that the U.S. is still on the edges of this discussion. He said we need to involve Egyptian civilians in the discussion and begin talking on the Hill about how our structures for administering aid are “ossified” and how we can be more nimble. Fattah said we must explore ways to build independent institutions we can trust to increase credibility in aid distribution.