A Fateful Funding Decision on the Middle East and North Africa

The Obama administration's decision to reduce democracy funding for the Middle East and North Africa is disappointing if not a surprise. It is not a surprise because Barack Obama has not been committed to this effort the way George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were. The large amounts spent in the first year of the Obama administration were actually the monies budgeted by Bush in his last year, and Obama never tried to increase such funding even with the advent of the Arab Spring. In the ensuing years under Obama, the U.S. commitment to democracy in the region has effectively waned if we count dollars not spent when the need was so great. And now the administration has announced a cut of more than 50 percent to these programs.

But we can also review strategy and rhetoric to get a handle on the administration's priorities, and these tell a tale as well. They show us that a reduction in funding was only a matter of time. The sequester played a role here, as did the need to increase spending on security. However, the administration finds money for other programs when it values them, but it has not valued spending on democracy sufficient to find the funds.

Those of us who worked in the Bush administration on these efforts learned early on from our many contacts among both career officials and Obama's political appointees that there would be a change. (NB: Support for democracy is one of the most nonpartisan efforts in all of the federal government, and those who do this work or comment and write about it tend to have regular and collaborative relationships with each other no matter their party or politics.) Rather than leading with support for democracy as the primary way to help democrats around the world build peaceful, just, and prospering societies, the administration planned to return to the old approach to international development, which is to emphasize health, education, agriculture, economics, and selected human rights issues and consider these efforts to be support for democracy. They believe that when these programs bear fruit, democracy is implicitly being built. From this approach one infers that leading with democracy is hard (admittedly, it is, and no administration has been perfect on this) and also that it is infeasible because it alienates "useful" dictators and sometimes causes instability as democratic uprisings roil societies and cause collateral damage to other U.S. foreign-policy priorities. This is a point well taken and not to be dismissed -- we should all be willing and able to channel our inner Henry Kissinger. Indeed, not every good intention to support democracy somewhere around the world is a wise idea when context is taken into account.

And certainly the president has every right to insist on his own approach and strategy, but he should expect constructive criticism. I would therefore aver that a change in strategy away from the hard work of supporting democrats around the world to build parties, strengthen civil society and the rule of law, and develop a free press to something more in keeping with the administration's stress on secondary rights and needs is a mistake. When U.S. policy is to offer dictators programs that they have always been more willing to countenance if we'll just leave them alone about their "presidencies for life," such a policy might well alleviate current suffering. But more likely it will help dictators stay in power while they further entrench themselves (see Ecuador which has just effectively kicked USAID out of the country after years of benefitting from its programs).

So the administration's mistake in my view is its failure to appreciate what true development is: It is, as economist Amartya Sen and others have observed, captured in one word: freedom. Only when people are free to challenge their government and change it will they be free to use their gifts and talents to prosper themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations. Only then can they truly achieve lasting and broad-based economic development and all the attendant benefits this brings, such as better health and nutrition, better education, and the freedom to be entrepreneurs and sell one's wares and one's labor in a free market while keeping the profits away from a rapacious, corrupt, or incompetent state ruled by a privileged political class. There is no economic development without good government, but there is no good government without democracy, at least if we are seeking sustainable development that maximizes the benefit of everyone's gifts and talents.

I do not doubt at all the administration's good intentions and its desire to see the Middle East and North Africa become more developed and peaceful by means of the "new" strategy. I do not doubt that it believes that supporting human rights, increased economic activity, and greater equity in the economies of developing countries will improve lives and hopefully lead to regional stability and peace. But I doubt very seriously that any dictator in power in any of the region's countries have these as their primary goals. They have one goal; it is the goal of dictators from time immemorial, and it trumps all other goals: to stay in power no matter how much harm they have to cause their countrymen.

But this change in strategy is a mistake for another reason: It will be read as yet another signal by the enemies of the United States and freedom generally that the United States continues to withdraw from the fray. It will also demoralize the Europeans, the Indians, and others who have been supporting democrats around the world. We fool ourselves when we diminish the importance of the United States' reputation in the world by suggesting that we are not exceptional, or when we wring our hands and say that the people of the Middle East and North Africa see us only as exporters of a decadent pop culture. The truth is that we are the beacon of hope and an example to tens of millions of Muslims and Arabs and other peoples of the region. It is our freedom that these millions crave even if a minority among them is willing to kill anyone they can for embracing it. When the United States appears not to place a priority on supporting those who want to live free, we not only harm freedom -- we harm our position in the world as the only country that can aid peace with freedom for all. Our enemies exult in such a withdrawal; our friends and the democratic governments in waiting despair.

I would urge the president and the Congress to work together to shore up funding as well as our image as "the last best hope of the Earth."

Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

6 Bad Assumptions President Obama Should Leave Behind in Hawaii

As the Obama administration anticipates the president's return to the White House next week from his Hawaii vacation, many senior staff and cabinet officials are likely preparing to meet with President Obama to discuss their strategic plans for the upcoming year. For the national security team, this can be an opportune time to not only map out their future plans but also to revisit some of the assumptions that have shaped their foreign policy during the administration's first five years.

Policy assumptions are often unstated; they are the stuff of an administration's worldview and the conceptual pillars that undergird the policies themselves. For these reasons and others, questioning policy assumptions can be a hard exercise. Doing so demands a willingness to admit possible error, can threaten multiple bureaucratic interests and scarce resources invested in current policy lines, and requires time and perspective that is hard to come by amidst the frenetic pace of the daily in-box and crisis management. This can be an especially fraught process for mid-level staff who risk being labeled "disloyal" or "unsupportive" of the president's agenda, and fear that raising a voice of dissent could mean losing their access, their influence, or even their job.

All this is made even more difficult by the notorious "White House bubble" that afflicts Democratic and Republican presidencies alike and can induce a delusion that current policies are succeeding when in fact they are not. A helpful prerequisite is for administration principals - beginning with President Obama, and including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel - to set the right tone by telling their policy staffs, especially their strategic planners, that policy assumptions can and should be reviewed.

As a first step, here are my suggestions of some current Obama administration policy assumptions that should be questioned (and probably jettisoned):

  • American leadership inspires global resentments. This meta-assumption seems to undergird many other Obama administration policy assumptions, and explains much of the administration's worldview. It is seductive because it is partially true -- but its converse is even more true, that American passivity inspires even greater frustrations around the world. And hurts American interests.
  • Rhetoric is reassuring to our Asian allies. Over two years after the administration's much-hyped "pivot" to Asia, most Asian leaders, especially among American allies, have come to the reluctant conclusion that it was just talk. The administration's continued protestations of U.S. commitment to Asia ring hollow in light of failure to devote adequate military resources, diplomatic engagement, and political commitment to the free trade agenda.
  • Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The administration's laudable successes in decimating much of the original core al Qaeda leadership seems to have blinded it to the mutation and resurgence of many affiliated terrorist franchises, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, al-Nusra Front, and others. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out, al Qaeda had a very good year in 2013. Ignoring that does not bode well for American interests in 2014.
  • Iran is negotiating from a position of weakness, not strength. While I hope the not-yet-implemented provisional agreement with Iran will succeed in ending Iran's nuclear program, I fear it will not. And this is because the administration's assumptions seem to have been that an Iran weakened by sanctions and diplomatically isolated is desperate for a deal. Whereas Iran seems to have calculated that it was the Obama administration that is weak and desperate for a deal, having let the Assad regime off the hook over its chemical weapons use, resisted Congressional sanctions measures, alienated its ally Israel, and quietly decided it is unwilling to use force against Iran.
  • We don't need the Saudis, and the rest of the Middle East doesn't matter. As many including my Shadow colleague John Hannah have commented, America's alienation from Saudi Arabia and blithe dismissal of Riyadh's concerns has been stunning. Yes, the Saudis can be vexing to deal with and their interests do not always align with ours. But they have been a pillar of our regional policy for decades, and disregarding the Kingdom is foolish. Meanwhile the ongoing crises in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are worsening and risk destabilizing the entire region, yet receive little attention from an administration that seems intent on ignoring anything in the Middle East not labeled "Israel-Palestinian Peace Process."
  • The Bush administration is the main source of our problems. It beggars belief that five years after Bush left office this assumption still has purchase on the White House's thinking, but as my Shadow colleague Dan Twining pointed out just over a month ago, some influential Obama staff are still addicted to an irresponsible "blame Bush" posture. For 2014, that should be the first and easiest assumption to toss in the burn bag. The Obama administration needs to take responsibility for its own actions -- and inactions.

As hard as it is to question assumptions, it can be done. The White House eventually disabused itself of some of its earlier mistaken assumptions, such as that Vladimir Putin could be enticed into being a reliable American partner, or that Obama's appealing image alone would inspire widespread global cooperation. If the Obama administration hopes to salvage its final three years of foreign policy, then a safe assumption is it should begin by asking itself some hard questions.

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