Promoting Democracy, out of Fashion in Washington?

Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars
Anouar Boukhars Former Brookings Expert

September 22, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Is US President Barack Obama’s Administration providing less support for human rights and political reform in the broader Middle East – or is it merely adopting a different tone about promoting democracy?

A number of recent reports and studies demonstrate that there is a perception in the United States that the administration is dissociating itself from democracy promotion in the Middle East. In Commentary Magazine‘s article “The Abandonment of Democracy”, Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, assails the administration for removing “human rights and democracy from the agenda of our foreign policy.”

Articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Financial Times cite many examples that would seem to show the administration is shifting towards a realpolitik normalcy – one which focuses on maintaining power, rather than promoting principles or ideals. At her confirmation hearing, for example, then Secretary of State-designate, Hillary Clinton, outlined a new foreign policy: the “Three D’s” – defence, diplomacy and development. Democracy was noticeably absent from that list.

Based on these examples, the Obama administration stands accused of prioritising America’s alliance with important authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for short-term gain and subordinating democratic reforms and basic human rights principles.

This characterisation, however, seems simplistic and paints the priorities of the administration with too broad a brush.

Democracy promotion is still a priority for the Obama administration and the clearest evidence for it is in his budget: Obama’s proposed aid budget to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for the 2010 fiscal year is substantially higher than that of his predecessor’s a year ago. According to the Project on Middle East Democracy, funding for democracy and governance programmes is more than twice what former President George W. Bush devoted to these programmes for fiscal year 2009.

To be sure, much of this aid increase is reserved for conflict areas: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The rest of the MENA region has seen increases that range in degree and significance. In Morocco, for example, the requested funding for rule of law, political competition and human rights programmes have increased substantially. Civil society funding also shot up by an estimated 67 per cent. In Yemen, such increases were three times higher than amounts in fiscal year 2009.

The Obama administration has tended to divert funds from civil society promotion towards economic development and rule of law programmes, which is most evident with Egypt and Jordan. The administration believes that its predecessor diverted important resources from much needed developmental programmes towards futile good governance projects. Cutting or eliminating programmes devoted to infrastructure development, healthcare and agriculture in order to sponsor political-reform conferences for governors, appointed by and answerable only to an uncontested president, for example, does little to advance the cause of democracy.

That the Obama administration favours a democracy promotion strategy that sees economic development and political reform as complementary goals is also evident in its support of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). The MCA, a development fund created by the Bush administration, was the US government’s first attempt to take a governance-led approach to development aid. Funds administered through the MCA closely link levels of assistance to the quality of recipient countries’ governance and institutions.

The trajectory pursued by the new administration belies simplistic accusations that Obama is disregarding human rights and democracy in favour of realpolitik. He has consistently spoken up about the importance of political reforms, human rights and good governance. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history”, Obama warned autocratic leaders in his inaugural address. This message was recently reinforced in his historic speeches in Cairo and Accra.

The issue that he must decide on is then not whether to pursue democracy promotion, but how to go about doing it. That answer might be found in his first budget request for the year 2010. The president clearly privileges support for rule of law and governance programmes, as evidenced by the significant amounts of funding devoted for such initiatives. The record of past development assistance is clear: unless a government is inclusive, transparent, lawful and accountable, no amount of aid can help deliver development progress that is broad-based and sustainable.

Support for civil society programmes occupies a second important objective, demonstrated by the administration’s increased funding for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which funds local civil society organisations and other agents of change.

Obama believes, as he declared during an interview with The Washington Post before his inauguration, in an approach that is “less obsessed with form, more concerned with substance.” Such an approach de-emphasises the virtues of premature elections and lofty rhetoric, and instead promotes a measured policy that relies on economic development and shoring up of the institutions that allow a democratic society to develop.

In other words, elections matter but often fail, as Clinton stated in her confirmation hearing, in the absence of “strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law.”

This strategy can be effective, but only if buttressed by high-level diplomatic support and willingness to link levels of assistance to accountability and performance-based principles.

This opinion also appeared in The Daily Star.