The freedom agenda is alive and kicking

The freedom agenda is alive and kicking

Steve McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy has trolled through President Bush’s budget request to Congress and discovered that it includes a huge increase in funds for promoting democracy and good governance in the "Broader Middle East and North Africa" (BMENA) region:

Requested funding for democracy and governance programs in the BMENA region is $758 million, an 89% increase over FY08 levels. This is 10.2% of the total request for the region, higher than the fraction of the budget in any previous year. GJD programs have received steady increases in funding throughout the Bush administration, and annual levels of funding now exceed the total granted for such programs from 1991 to 2001.

As McInerney notes, the vast majority of U.S. aid to the region will still be military in nature, and especially in Persian Gulf countries. Repressive Tunisia won’t be getting any funds this year, after a one-year experiment that must not have worked out so well. Nor will Bahrain and Kuwait, as Congress nixed their funding last year (the State Department does conduct democratization programs in those countries, however).

I’m all for democracy in the Middle East; I once worked in Egypt for an NGO promoting it. But I have deep doubts about how effective more U.S. funding can really be at this point. Without some major changes in the American approach to the region — and some strategic shifts by Arab leaders — I doubt that throwing more foreign money at the problem will do much good. We’ll see how Congress reacts.