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Lugar holding up State Department funds for Tunisian democracy

The State Department wants to shift resources toward supporting civil society development in Tunisia, but the top senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is refusing to allow State to transfer money away from an education program in the Middle East for that purpose. In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State ...

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The State Department wants to shift resources toward supporting civil society development in Tunisia, but the top senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is refusing to allow State to transfer money away from an education program in the Middle East for that purpose.

In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State Department is rapidly trying to reevaluate its approach to Middle East democracy promotion. But without a budget for fiscal 2011, and with no idea of what awaits their budget in fiscal 2012, State is being forced to move money around to speed funds to the Arab countries that are trying to make the difficult transition to democracy.

Three weeks ago, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative sent Congress what’s known as a "congressional notification," requesting permission to shift $29 million in funds from other programs in the region. State wants to shift $20 million to democracy promotion efforts in Tunisia and around the region. Another $7 million would go supporting rule of law and political development programs in the Middle East. $1 million would go to youth councils in Yemen.

In order to fund these initiatives, $10 million would be taken away from the "Tomorrow’s Leaders" program, which provides scholarships for Arab youth to attend college at three U.S.-accredited universities in the Middle East.

Three powerful GOP congressional offices initially objected to State taking the funds away from the "Tomorrow’s Leaders" program. The lawmakers holding up the money were House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).

The Cable confirmed on April 1 that the three committee members had placed "informational holds" on the reprogramming request. That means they sent additional questions back to State about why the money was being taken from the universities, whether State had tried to find the money elsewhere, and whether another source of the money could be found.

On April 4, Ros-Lehtinen and Granger’s office told The Cable that they had lifted their holds, but still thought the State Department’s request lacked detail.

"State’s original justification for the reprogramming was vague, and additional information was requested," said Ros-Lehtinen spokesman Brad Goehner. "As soon as the information was provided, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen authorized the funds to go through."

"We had some outstanding questions about how the State Department was making its reprogramming decision and we now feel those questions have been addressed," a Granger aide told The Cable.

That leaves Lugar’s office as the only one keeping the funds from being disbursed. Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable that Lugar is unhappy with how State is dealing with the overall regional response, not just this specific reprogramming request.

"Senator Lugar continues to have a number of questions about the administration’s strategy for the upheavals across North Africa and the greater Middle East," said Helmke. "Lugar is concerned the administration is just reacting to events without a plan on where we are going. Democracy building in Tunisia is a good thing. But so are scholarships. How does this re-programming affect other projects in Egypt and elsewhere? The lack of a clear end game strategy for Libya, and the refusal to gain congressional authority, only add to Lugar’s concerns."

A Lugar committee staffer told The Cable that Lugar would allow State to move enough money to fund the Tunisia program, but not all the programs in the request. Lugar will also not allow, for now, State to take the money from the educational program.

"We are doing due diligence on this, it’s pretty routine, making sure they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul, or rushing money out the door without a solid plan," the staffer said. "If [the educational program] is the only place to find money to respond to Tunisia, or to the many urgent needs in the Middle East and North Africa, the [State] Department should make that case."

The three universities that run the Tomorrow’s Leaders program are the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, and the Lebanese American University.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is represented in Washington by William Hoffman, a registered lobbyist for the university who has been in contact with these GOP offices to make the case for defending the funds. According to the website Opensecrets.org, Hoffman’s firm Gryphon International was paid $144,000 by AUB in 2010 and has been working for the university, its only client, for several years.

In an interview with The Cable, Hoffman confirmed he had been in contact with both Lugar and Granger’s office recently to make the case for the education money.

"The issue is how do we best promote democracy building and sustainable economic development in the Arab world. People with very good intentions can disagree about the best way to do that, but it’s certainly my feeling that you can hardly do better than to provide American-style education," Hoffman said. "There is a tendency in government to look at short- term, rather than long-term goals and in some cases that can be a mistake."

The State Department wants to shift resources toward supporting civil society development in Tunisia, but the top senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is refusing to allow State to transfer money away from an education program in the Middle East for that purpose.

In the wake of the democratic revolutions sweeping the region, the State Department is rapidly trying to reevaluate its approach to Middle East democracy promotion. But without a budget for fiscal 2011, and with no idea of what awaits their budget in fiscal 2012, State is being forced to move money around to speed funds to the Arab countries that are trying to make the difficult transition to democracy.

Three weeks ago, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative sent Congress what’s known as a "congressional notification," requesting permission to shift $29 million in funds from other programs in the region. State wants to shift $20 million to democracy promotion efforts in Tunisia and around the region. Another $7 million would go supporting rule of law and political development programs in the Middle East. $1 million would go to youth councils in Yemen.

In order to fund these initiatives, $10 million would be taken away from the "Tomorrow’s Leaders" program, which provides scholarships for Arab youth to attend college at three U.S.-accredited universities in the Middle East.

Three powerful GOP congressional offices initially objected to State taking the funds away from the "Tomorrow’s Leaders" program. The lawmakers holding up the money were House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN).

The Cable confirmed on April 1 that the three committee members had placed "informational holds" on the reprogramming request. That means they sent additional questions back to State about why the money was being taken from the universities, whether State had tried to find the money elsewhere, and whether another source of the money could be found.

On April 4, Ros-Lehtinen and Granger’s office told The Cable that they had lifted their holds, but still thought the State Department’s request lacked detail.

"State’s original justification for the reprogramming was vague, and additional information was requested," said Ros-Lehtinen spokesman Brad Goehner. "As soon as the information was provided, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen authorized the funds to go through."

"We had some outstanding questions about how the State Department was making its reprogramming decision and we now feel those questions have been addressed," a Granger aide told The Cable.

That leaves Lugar’s office as the only one keeping the funds from being disbursed. Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke told The Cable that Lugar is unhappy with how State is dealing with the overall regional response, not just this specific reprogramming request.

"Senator Lugar continues to have a number of questions about the administration’s strategy for the upheavals across North Africa and the greater Middle East," said Helmke. "Lugar is concerned the administration is just reacting to events without a plan on where we are going. Democracy building in Tunisia is a good thing. But so are scholarships. How does this re-programming affect other projects in Egypt and elsewhere? The lack of a clear end game strategy for Libya, and the refusal to gain congressional authority, only add to Lugar’s concerns."

A Lugar committee staffer told The Cable that Lugar would allow State to move enough money to fund the Tunisia program, but not all the programs in the request. Lugar will also not allow, for now, State to take the money from the educational program.

"We are doing due diligence on this, it’s pretty routine, making sure they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul, or rushing money out the door without a solid plan," the staffer said. "If [the educational program] is the only place to find money to respond to Tunisia, or to the many urgent needs in the Middle East and North Africa, the [State] Department should make that case."

The three universities that run the Tomorrow’s Leaders program are the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, and the Lebanese American University.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is represented in Washington by William Hoffman, a registered lobbyist for the university who has been in contact with these GOP offices to make the case for defending the funds. According to the website Opensecrets.org, Hoffman’s firm Gryphon International was paid $144,000 by AUB in 2010 and has been working for the university, its only client, for several years.

In an interview with The Cable, Hoffman confirmed he had been in contact with both Lugar and Granger’s office recently to make the case for the education money.

"The issue is how do we best promote democracy building and sustainable economic development in the Arab world. People with very good intentions can disagree about the best way to do that, but it’s certainly my feeling that you can hardly do better than to provide American-style education," Hoffman said. "There is a tendency in government to look at short- term, rather than long-term goals and in some cases that can be a mistake."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin