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What Price Freedom? Assessing the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a luncheon briefing on September 18, 2006 to present the findings of Saban Center Analysis Paper # 10, What Price Freedom? Assessing the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda. Authors Tamara Cofman Wittes, Research Fellow at the Saban Center, and Sarah Yerkes, a former Research Analyst with the Center, provided a summary and overview of their paper. Lorne Craner, the President of the International Republican Institute, provided commentary from both a practitioner’s and a former government official’s perspective. Martin Indyk, the Director of the Saban Center, moderated the discussion.

Wittes began by noting that the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda has moved forward in the last three years, and that it has overcome many of the credibility problems that it initially encountered. She observed, however, that the Freedom Agenda continues to face difficulties stemming from a loss of momentum. Terming the Freedom Agenda a strategy for compelling Middle Eastern governments to reform, she noted that fears of instability in the region and uncertainties regarding the role of Islamist parties in any reform strategy have worked to hamper some of the Freedom Agenda’s momentum.

Declaring that there was little doubt as to the Bush Administration’s will and intentions vis-à-vis reform, Wittes warned that its ability to implement its will and intentions with regards to the Freedom Agenda are not assured. In this light, Wittes said that it is important to look at the details of U.S. reform efforts in the region, and to observe what is being built and not just what is being said.

Wittes outlined the three main projects underway to advance the Freedom Agenda: the Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA); the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative (BMENA); and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). She said that MEFTA has confined itself to bilateral trade agreements between the United States and individual countries in the region. Wittes expressed doubt as to how much impact such agreements could have either in terms of economic or political reform. With regard to BMENA, which was intended to bring the U.S., European Union, and Middle Eastern governments to a single table with regional non-governmental organizations and civil society actors, she noted that the initiative has thus far failed to focus on substantive reform issues in its meetings, confining discussion to economic and educational issues.

Sarah Yerkes presented an overview of MEPI’s spending during the last three years. She noted two important trends: toward greater funding for the initiative, and toward more equal distribution of initiative funds over MEPI’s four pillars of activity (economic, educational, political, and women’s issues). Yerkes noted that, while the amount of MEPI funds devoted to assisting foreign government institutions and their representatives has decreased over time, a large portion of funds now goes to training and exchange programs. These programs are beneficial, Yerkes said, because they expose a relatively large number of people to MEPI and its work. At the same time, she noted that such programs are of short duration and therefore more limited in scope and impact.

Before concluding with a list of the challenges that lie ahead for the Freedom Agenda, Wittes noted that MEPI has seen a steady decline in the funds available for discretionary spending, as both MEFTA and BMENA commitments have absorbed a greater share of resources. In addition to this challenge, she said that future challenges for the Freedom Agenda include hostility to democracy promotion efforts in the region, the need to balance short-term and long-term pay-offs (such as immediate strategic needs against democracy promotion), and the requirement of policy coherence when solving the policy dilemmas that arise in attempting to balance democracy promotion with other U.S. strategic goals.

Craner commented that the Freedom Agenda is still a young policy and that, as such, it cannot be expected to have much demonstrable success after five years of existence. At the same time, he said that the Freedom Agenda must be better institutionalized within the U.S. government and that U.S. officials must have the goals of the Freedom Agenda instilled into their work ethic and practices.

Craner said that his experience with the State Department has shown him that its environment has become more accommodating and supportive of democracy promotion, due to what he termed generational differences between a new and an old guard. He also remarked that Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice have each demonstrated during their time in office that they care deeply about democracy promotion issues.

Craner cautioned, however, that the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs of the State Department has changed the least in terms of its acceptance of the goal of democracy promotion. He said that MEPI should remain within the State Department, disagreeing with analysts, such as Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who have written that the initiative would be more effective if it were based outside of the government. He insisted that issues of democracy and human rights need to be better integrated into U.S. foreign policy. Craner cited the Advance Democracy Act of Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain and Representatives Tom Lantos and Frank Wolf as an example of legislative support for this approach of integrating the Freedom Agenda into the structure of foreign policy.

Craner said that it was important to deal with economic reform and political reform simultaneously. He added, however, that there is a limit to the amount of money that non-governmental organizations and civil society actors in the Middle East can absorb to carry out reforms.

Craner concluded that the Freedom Agenda addresses the hopelessness felt in the Arab world. He said that even though President Bush will be out of office in two years, it will be difficult for the next U.S. President and the Congress to avoid the issues the Freedom Agenda deals with, especially with regards to the Middle East. In his view, democracy promotion has already become an important facet of U.S. foreign policy.

Indyk asked what could be done during the next two years to ensure the Freedom Agenda’s staying power and future success. Wittes replied that MEPI needs to focus on laying the foundations for long-term institutional change, regardless of the size of its operating budget. She also said that the future success of MEPI depends upon the success of the Secretary Rice’s transformational diplomacy initiative, and whether the State Department succeeds in better training foreign service officers and providing them with a firm grasp of regional issues.

Craner said that while democracy promotion has long been a bi-partisan issue in the United States, polling by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) has revealed that Republicans and Democrats in America now differ greatly in their support of democracy promotion. The results of the GMF poll showed that 64% of Republicans support democracy promotion, as opposed to just 35% of Democrats. Craner expressed the concern that the bi-partisan support for democracy promotion could be affected, thereby turning this aspect of foreign policy into an issue of partisan contention.

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