The Spectacle Blog

Obama’s Backwards Foreign Aid Priorities

By on 2.17.12 | 10:27AM

US interests in the Southeastern Mediterranean seem pretty clear: We should be empowering secular democratic political actors in Egypt to compete in the future with the currently ascendent Islamists, and meanwhile maintaining strong ties with Israel -- our only truly stable ally in the region -- to deter belligerence by actors within Egypt who might be itching to tear up the Camp David Accords. More specifically:

1. Withhold aid to Egypt's military government until they reverse course on repression of organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which train activists in the nuts and bolts of political organization;

2. Maintain support for said organizations;

3. Strengthen military ties with Israel;

4. Avoid diplomatic friction with Israel.

In the budget proposal released Monday, the Obama administration proposes to do the opposite of all of these things.

1. As Jen Rubin notes,

[T]he administration has threatened a cut off of aid to Egypt if the junta goes ahead with prosecution of NGO's personnel including some Americans. But - you guessed it - the administration's budget calls for $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt. Might the administration have put that on hold as an incentive for the Egyptians to dismiss the changes? Apparently, not. 

There are efforts on Capitol Hill to move on this front, including the amendment Rand Paul wants added to the Highway Bill, which is currently stalled over this issue; the administration's position no doubt helps explain Senate Democrats' resistence.

2. Democracy-promotion -- including the National Endowment for Democracy, which funds the NDI and IRI -- takes a cut:

Under Obama's proposal, released Monday, the State Department's Democracy Fund would be cut by 21 percent from its current $140-million appropriation, leaving it with $111 million for fiscal 2012. Subsidies for the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit that focuses on spreading democracy, would be cut by 12 percent, from $118 million to $104 million.

This is a familiar move for the Obama administration, which in its first year made major cuts to programs promoting democracy and governance in Egypt. The White House slashed those funds by 60 percent, from $50 million to $20 million, during 2009, though Congress added another $5 million in funding to the programs. Hit hardest by those cuts were civil-society programs and nongovernmental organizations, whose funding dropped 78 percent, from $32 million to $7 million.

Those cuts were backed by diplomats in Cairo, who told the White House that democracy-promotion programs harmed relations with recently-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

To repeat this: In the two years prior to Mubarak's fall, the Obama administration was cutting back on training Egyptian democrats. When Mubarak fell, his legacy included an Islamist movement with unmatched organizational muscle. And the White House has apparently learned nothing from this.

3. Obama's budget cuts funding for US-Israeli missile defense programs, to the horror of the relevant House Republican leaders; Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon sent an open letter on Wednesday urging President Obama to reconsider. McKeon, at an event on Capitol Hill yesterday morning hosted by the "Defending Defense" project (a joint venture of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative), reiterated his objection to cutting missile defense funding. "We should be increasing it," he added.

4. On the other hand, there is an area where the Obama administration does want to increase funding, as Adam Kredo at the excellent new Washington Free Beacon explains:

The Obama administration is clandestinely trying to resume funding a U.N. body that officially recognized the "State of Palestine."

But members of Congress say that they won't stand for it.

A footnote tucked into the president's recently unveiled budget proposal reveals the administration's intent to resume funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, otherwise known as UNESCO.

UNESCO caused an international firestorm last year when it accepted Palestine as a member - despite the fact that Palestine is neither a state nor a full member of the U.N.

Congress responded to UNESCO's unwarranted intrusion into the Middle East peace process by invoking a U.S. law that prohibits funding of any international organization that recognizes a Palestinian state.

Now, however, Obama is aiming to resume UNESCO's funding - ignoring the Palestinians' ongoing quest to establish a state via the U.N., rather than through direct negotiations with Israel.

According to a footnote in the White House's budget summary: "The Department of State intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO. Should the Congress pass this legislation, this funding is sufficient to cover the FY 2013 UNESCO assessment and the balance of the FY 2012 assessment."

Kredo goes on to quote Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Joe Walsh expressing opposition. 

So, to recap, the administration's budget attaches no strings to aid to the Egyptian government that is suppressing organizations dedicated to democratic development, cuts funding for those organizations, cuts missile defense cooperation with Israel, and seeks to restore UN funding in a way that gives the Palestinians a pass on an attempted end-run around bilateral diplomacy with Israel. Do you ever get the idea that this administration doesn't know what is and isn't in our national interest?

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