As part of the agreement to re-open the government, the House and Senate have finally agreed to form a budget conference committee and pass actual appropriations bills for the next fiscal year. While the top-line funding numbers are important, the details of how the foreign affairs budget is reconciled are also critical. The foreign operations bill provides funding for nearly all of the non-defense functions of U.S. foreign engagement. The need for American leadership is as urgent as ever, but the version that came out of the House Committee earlier this year made deep and dangerous cuts to our diplomatic toolkit while sequestration is systematically starving key programs. Legislators who understand the vital role of American leadership need to fight hard for robust and funding in the coming weeks and months as critical accounts like the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the MENA Incentive Fund hang in the balance.
Programs like these need to be protected and grown because they represent the best and most effective approaches to international support. We need to be doubling down on region-wide and flexible mechanisms that leverage partnerships with NGOs and the private sector in order to help our policy become less reactionary, invest in long-term U.S. interests, and help build up the capacity of populations through health, education, economic growth, and active civil society.
This type of assistance is not simply foreign charity; it is a vital component of American leadership and economic growth. Then- Secretary Clinton laid out the basic ingredients earlier this year, encouraging governments to “ view civil society not as a threat but as an asset. A genuine democracy is like a three-legged stool. One leg is responsive, accountable government; the second leg a dynamic, job-creating private sector; and the third leg is a robust and vibrant civil society.” The U.S. has the tools and expertise to help developing countries construct this three-legged stool, but our diplomats and partners can’t do that work while being forced into robbing Peter to pay Paul. The importance of maintaining a strong defense is without questions, but the country is weaker if we allow our military to be our primary actor on the global stage. If we wish to see a world comprised of more modern, inclusive, and open countries – we need to invest in strategy designed to do just that.
Too many politicians believe their constituents are too shortsighted or un-engaged to see the value of these investments, but that is simply not the case. After hearing that foreign assistance makes up merely 1% of the Federal budget, only 24% of Americans believe we spend too much while 36% believe that we don’t spend enough. With another 30% saying that 1% is about right, the last thing we should be doing is cutting back. The Better World Campaign recently commissioned a nationwide survey finding that over 85% of Americans support funding programs which help women and girls in foreign countries achieve better health, education, and economic opportunity as well as being overwhelmingly supportive of efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger around the world. When it comes to fully funding the foreign operations budget, politicians have a much easier case to make than many of them think.
 Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State (Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society 2012 Summit, Washington DC: US Department of State)
 Kaiser Family Foundation Survey. May 2012
“When Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns meets with Egyptian officials today, for the first time since President Morsi was deposed, he should strongly encourage the transitional government to avoid prosecuting or persecuting the ousted leader and his allies. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s government managed to alienate much of the population through managerial incompetence and autocratic tendencies, they were serving under the legitimate authority of popular elections.
The United States has important regional interests in the stability of Egypt, but American policy needs to avoid taking sides with specific political actors. Instead, the U.S. should make it clear that our allies and recipients of large aid packages are expected to be invested in the processes, values, and institutions of inclusive democracy. We have seen over the last several years that threats to withhold military assistance are seen in Cairo as empty threats and insufficient motivation to change policy or approach. This sticks American policymakers with the bill while denying them any of the leverage that is supposed to accompany it. Burns should inform the Egyptian government that, as mandated by U.S. law, aid will be temporarily suspended until a democratically elected government is returned to power. The United States should take this opportunity to continue working on the bilateral relationship – one that is marred by a history of suspicion and ambivalence – while expanding the scope of stakeholders that the U.S. government engages with. If we aspire to see this “revolution reboot” result in a more open, democratic, and inclusive Egypt, we need to learn the lessons of the last 18 months, speaking out vocally for U.S. values and backing it up with consistent actions.” Brad Bosserman, 7/18/2013
Dramatic changes have been taking place in the Middle East over the last few weeks and NDN’s MENA Initiative has gathered together some of their latest analysis to help our community better understand the challenges and opportunities of the unfolding events in Egypt, Iran, and Syria. You can find this on the NDN website.
Bradley Bosserman hosted an interactive webcast on framing a more robust Middle East strategy. This previously unpublished briefing deck highlights some of the latest market research and polling from the United States and abroad, detailing political opportunities and framing mechanics that can successfully support a strategy of broader economic engagement with the Middle East and North Africa.
In this latest MENA Chat webcast, Bradley Bosserman explores the strategy and challenges that underlie U.S. democracy assistance in the Middle East. He is joined by Dr. Sarah Bush, whose recent research provides important insights on possible reforms. Rebecca Abou-Chedid is also featured. Drawing on her experience in Cairo she discusses some of the ways these dynamics play out in Egypt. Follow this link to view the webcast.
As background — Secretary Kerry, following his first Middle East trip at the helm of the State Department, approved the release of $250 million in aid to the young Egyptian government. While Egypt’s economy remains on the brink and in desperate need of foreign assistance, the move is not without controversy. Republican Senator Marco Rubio last week proposed legislation that would place new conditions on further aid disbursement, while some activists remain critical of funding the government without assurances that they are committed to making real progress toward more democratic institutions and protecting key political and civil rights.
Dr. Sarah Bush is an expert on foreign aid strategy and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Temple University. She recently published “Confront or Conform? Rethinking U.S. Democracy Assistance” for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).
Rebecca Abou-Chedid is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, Co-Chair of the Board for Just Vision, and former National Political Director for the Arab American Institute.