Seeding Democracy: The Best Return on Foreign Aid

We don’t know whether this “Arab Spring” of protests for freedom and democracy will spread further across the Middle East and northern Africa, or whether the tyrants of Tripoli, Tehran, Riyadh, and other capitals will snuff it out.

We do know, however, that we should finally retire the notion of Arab “exceptionalism,” the idea that, unlike people in any other part of the world, the people of this region either do not want democracy or are not ready for it. As evidenced by the millions in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran and elsewhere who are risking their lives to protest, they want democracy – and the United States should help them get it, with financial support through our foreign aid budget.

Washington currently spends upwards of $50 billion a year in foreign aid (depending on what you include in that category), which we send to more than 100 nations and to global institutions like the World Bank. We provide economic aid to improve living standards in Third World nations, military aid to strengthen our allies, humanitarian aid to respond to catastrophes, and democracy-promotion aid that goes for building civil society, monitoring elections and other tasks. We allocate it through the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Defense and Treasury Departments, and a host of other agencies.

In his 2012 budget, President Obama proposed $47 billion for the State Department and USAID, a 1 percent increase over the 2010 level (the final 2011 level for this and every other discretionary program remains tied up in budget wrangling in Congress). But, as Josh Rogin wrote in Foreign Policy, the proposed 2012 figure reaches $50.9 billion when you add Obama’s requests for the Peace Corps, Broadcasting Board of Governors, and Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Realistically, democracy promotion will never be the most important reason why we allocate foreign aid. Instead, we will distribute that aid mostly to serve our immediate national security.

From the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, we allocated foreign aid largely to fight the Cold War, according to a 2009 overview by Congressional Research Service scholars Curt Tarnoff and Marian Leonardo Lawson. The effort began with the Marshall Plan of 1948-51 to rebuild Europe, and it continued through annual appropriations that sent money to most of the world’s nations. We supported our allies and we helped groups in other nations overthrow their communist leaders.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have refocused our foreign aid budget largely to fight the war on terror.

The bulk of our war-related foreign aid goes for reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have also distributed money to plenty of other nations that are fighting terrorists within their borders and to groups that are trying to overthrow governments that support terrorism.

All of that, however, comes with a cost, as The Fiscal Times’ David Francis outlined yesterday. Looking for allies during the Cold War, we supported dictators in Latin America and elsewhere who suppressed human rights and, thus, were very unpopular with their own people. Looking for allies in the war on terror, we do the same today, ignoring the human rights record of, for example, the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

That puts us on the wrong side of the values we profess to hold dear, those of freedom and democracy, raising questions about our sincerity. More importantly, it makes us the enemy of the very people we should be supporting – the students, labor leaders, journalists and opposition figures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere who will help create, and take positions in, the democratic governments of tomorrow.

To be sure, we had to fight the Cold War, just as we have to fight the war on terror. But, within our foreign aid budget, we can allocate more funds for democracy promotion, particularly at a time when the people of a volatile, economically backward, politically stultified region are seeking our support.

To date, the president’s record on democracy promotion is decidedly mixed; he has boosted funds for some programs while slashing them for others. He has faced harsh criticism for cuts in, and restrictions on, programs targeted at Egypt, traditionally the Arab world’s leader. Not only did he cut “democracy and governance programming” for that country from $50 million to $20 million in 2010, he also agreed to fund only nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were registered with the Egyptian government, giving the government veto power over groups that it might find threatening.

It all seems pennywise and pound foolish.

After all, a freer, more democratic world would reap huge dividends for the United States, as Obama said while running for president. “Democracies are our best trading partners, our most valuable allies and nations with which we share our deepest values,” he told the Washington Post in March 2008.

A freer, more democratic Middle East, in particular, would provide more opportunity for millions of young people who, facing bleak futures, are tempted by the ideologies that fuel terrorism. It also would reduce tensions in a region in which the outbreak of hostilities could threaten the flow of oil.

With democracy promotion, the dollars are modest, the potential payoff enormous. It seems like a worthy investment.

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