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This spring, President Obama submitted his annual budget request to Congress for Fiscal Year 2013, the final such budget of his current four-year term of office. It is always worthwhile to examine annual budgets for signals of policy priorities and changes, but this year’s budget takes on extra importance, as this is the first annual budget request that takes into account the historic changes that have swept the region since early 2011.
President Obama set a high bar for the U.S. response to these changes, promising in May 2011 that the U.S. would support democratic principles with “all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal,” and that this support would not be secondary to other strategic interests. More than a year later, it is difficult to argue that the administration’s policies and engagement with the Middle East have lived up to such lofty pronouncements, and changes to foreign assistance and support for democracy and governance programming reflect that. Nonetheless, the administration does deserve credit for intensifying its focus on support for democracy, governance, and human rights in some instances.
- The response of the U.S. administration to the dramatic political changes in the region, in terms of funding and foreign assistance, has been uneven and has not demonstrated a clear vision or strategy. While the United States has shown a determination to be helpful and supportive of democratic transitions in some countries, in many others the U.S. approach has not changed noticeably in the past 18 months, and in still others, the interest in and support for democratic reform appears to have diminished.
- U.S. support for the political transitions currently underway remains strong, especially in Tunisia. The administration has made support for Tunisia’s transition a real priority and has demonstrated impressive agility and creativity in providing much needed support through a wide variety of mechanisms. The United States has also provided significant support to Libya, although the U.S. role there is more muted and limited than in Tunisia for a variety of reasons. Strong U.S. support for Yemen’s transition has come more slowly than in Tunisia or Libya.
- The U.S. administration has proposed a bold, impressive new assistance initiative, the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, as the centerpiece of its response to the uprisings, but the actual establishment of the fund is endangered by the appropriations schedule and the 2012 U.S. elections. The request of $700 million in new funds from Congress would establish this incentive fund as the Obama administration’s signature foreign assistance initiative in the region, which could provide much needed support for political and economic reform in transitioning countries as well as countries that have not yet undergone dramatic uprisings or political upheavals.
- The future of U.S. assistance to Egypt is more uncertain than it has been in decades. The past year has seen a dramatic escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Egypt, driven in large part by Egyptian government attacks on NGOs including the criminal prosecution of employees of American democracy promotion organizations. As a result, the future of U.S.-funded democracy programming is very much in doubt. Likewise, growing frustration in Congress with the reluctance of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over power casts some doubt on the future of Egypt’s longstanding military aid package.
- The appetite of the U.S. administration for supporting serious democracy and governance programming in much of the region appears to have decreased. Despite pronouncements from President Obama and Secretary Clinton that support for democratic reform will be a top priority across the entire region, U.S. support for democratic reform in the GCC states, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza appears to have diminished.
- The structure of military aid to the region is excessively rigid and inflexible, making any adjustments or rebalancing between military aid and economic aid extremely difficult. While the Arab uprisings have sparked some discussion among key actors regarding potentially shifting to a greater proportion of U.S. assistance for economic aid as opposed to military aid, that process is greatly impeded by long-term agreements on military aid and by the influence of U.S. defense manufacturing companies.
- The constrained domestic U.S. budget environment continues to considerably restrict the administration’s ability to react to developments in the region. Even in the countries that are a top priority for the administration, U.S. officials encounter difficulty in finding the necessary funds to respond as they would like, especially against a backdrop of large overall cuts by Congress to international affairs budgets.