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."