Project on Middle East Democracy, April 2010.
by Stephen McInerney
Click here for information on the panel discussion that was held on Monday, April 19th, 2010, in conjunction with the report’s release.
In February and March, President Obama submitted to Congress a series of documents detailing his budget request for Fiscal Year 2011. While this is the President’s second annual budget request, it is in reality the first request compiled entirely by his administration. A year ago, many observers warned against reading too much into President Obama’s first annual budget request, cautioning that the approach to the region likely included temporary holdovers from the Bush administration along with some provisional changes in key countries that would all be reevaluated.
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.
Last year’s version of this report also predicted that the Democrat-controlled Congress would come far closer to fully granting the FY10 budget request of President Obama than it had to granting requested increases and changes in the annual budgets of the Bush administration. That was generally proven correct by the December 2009 passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010. Once again this year, Congress appears likely to pass FY11 appropriations for the region much as requested.
Support for democracy goes far beyond funding levels or assistance programs. How funds are spent matters as much as the amounts being spent. Moreover, diplomatic support and a range of other policy tools must complement any funding or programming. The levels of funding found in the annual budget merely reflect one component of what necessarily must be a complex, multifaceted task. These levels, however, certainly deserve to be examined, not only for their substantive impact, but also for the signals they send both to reformers and to the region’s governments.
Finally, in a report examining funding levels and budget priorities, it must be noted that despite the Obama administration’s stated intention to support “broader engagement” with Middle Eastern countries, U.S. assistance to the region remains dominated by aid for regional militaries. Leaving aside Iraq, the FY11 budget requests $5.1 billion for military assistance to the Middle East but only $1.3 billion for non-military assistance and initiatives, of which $225.9 million is designated to support democracy and governance. Moreover, these figures are dwarfed by the $159.3 billion requested for Department of Defense expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the U.S. intends to credibly convey support for the region’s people and not merely its authoritarian governments, the vast disparity between military and soft power spending in the region must be reconsidered.
- MEPI has Obama’s support. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has become a centerpiece of the administration’s efforts to engage civil society and support democracy in the region. Following a 30% increase in funding in FY10, the new budget requests an additional 32% increase up to $86 million. More than 6o% ($52.9 million) of the requested funding is for MEPI’s democracy and governance programs, with $27.2 million designated for civil society – a 39% increase from FY10.
- 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 administration is increasingly leaving Iraq’s governance to Iraqis. As the U.S. military draws down its presence in Iraq, the budget is also beginning to decrease large-scale bilateral funding for democracy and governance in Iraq, which is reduced 46% from existing levels.
- The administration has “doubled down” on aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan. After increasing aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan a year ago from $1.87 billion to $4.36 billion, President Obama has now requested an even larger increase, up to a total of $6.95 billion. This increase extends to funding for democracy and governance programs in the two countries, for which $1.58 billion is requested, up from a FY10 request of $991 million.
- Aid to Yemen is up. In last year’s FY10 budget, President Obama requested a 38% increase in foreign aid to Yemen, including a more than threefold increase in funding for democracy and governance programming. Now for FY11, he has requested an additional 58% increase in assistance to Yemen, while also restructuring USAID’s approach to the country.
- Internet freedom is a major point of emphasis. The Obama administration and Congress alike have embraced support for freedom of Internet access and online expression as a key component of the efforts to support human rights abroad. The Middle East is a particular focus of this approach.
- Total foreign assistance is increased. The Obama administration has requested a considerable increase in total foreign assistance for the BMENA region. At $14 billion, the request represents a 27% increase over the FY10 budget for total aid to the region.
- Total funding for democracy and governance is up. Leaving aside the outsized security and military-driven cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the FY11 budget increases funding for democracy and governance by 10% across the region.
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About the Author:
Stephen McInerney is Director of Advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy. He has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa, including graduate studies of Middle Eastern politics, history, and the Arabic language at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including MSNBC and CBS News. His writing on Middle East affairs and U.S. policy has been published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin, the Daily Star, the New Republic, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post. He received a Masters degree from Stanford University.