Democratization in the Middle East – A Role for the US Government?

Many people throughout the world today rightly ask themselves why the United States government has become such a vocal advocate of democratization and broad political reform in the Middle East.  For decades, the United States safeguarded its economic and political interests in the region through friendly relationships with autocratic Arab regimes.  However, speaking before the National Endowment for Democracy in November of 2003, President Bush said that, “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”  Only ten months earlier, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had established the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), under the direction of the Department of State. According to information provided by MEPI officials, it is a presidential initiative that aims to “support economic, political, and educational reforms in the Middle East.”
The Middle East Partnership Initiative divides its goals for the region into four “pillars,” each focusing on a different aspect of development.  MEPI’s stated objectives include reform of the economic, political, and educational arenas, as well as reforms to provide equal opportunities for women in these arenas.  MEPI is currently in its third year.  By the end of 2004, MEPI had spent just over $103 million to meet its goals, and Congress allocated an additional $160 million since then.  
Economic reforms include supporting economic growth through expansion of the private sector.  Political reforms involve the expansion of the public sphere such that citizens have a choice in governance and there is respect for the rule of law.  Educational reforms are aimed at supporting educational systems that will provide both boys and girls with knowledge and skills to compete in the present economy.
MEPI works to support reform through several means.  These include providing technical assistance to government agencies in the region, allocating grants to non-governmental organizations to work with local politicians to improve their campaign skills, and providing funding for translating English-language books into Arabic for use in schools.  MEPI also distributes small grants to local grassroots civil society organizations working toward various reforms in the region.
Despite MEPI’s reformist rhetoric and stated reform objectives, the Initiative has received criticism from two prominent scholars of democratization and political reform in the Middle East, Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, and Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In November of 2004, Tamara Cofman Wittes wrote a piece entitled “The Middle East Partnership Initiative:  Progress, Problems, and Prospects.”  In it, she accused MEPI of lacking a “coherent strategy” for pursuing reform initiatives, of subsidizing Arab governments’ “attempts to build a kinder, gentler autocracy,” and of failing to win solid and tangible US government support for its programs and goals.
According to Wittes, MEPI’s lack of a coherent strategy for meeting its objectives is the result of substantial pressure on staff to quickly spend the money allocated to the Initiative in order to justify requests for additional funding.  In addition, the Initiative as a whole is under pressure to demonstrate quickly achieved short-term successes, despite the fact that other approaches to reform have greater potential to meet long-term reform goals.
At its founding, Wittes points out that MEPI was distinguished by a stated commitment to rejecting reform through programs and projects working specifically with Arab governments.  Instead, MEPI committed itself to prioritizing funding for and working with local grassroots civil society organizations in the region whenever possible.  Despite this, by the end of 2004 only 18% of the funds allocated to MEPI went to American or Arab NGO’s conducting work in the region.  In providing nearly 70% of allocated funding to programs favored by or directly benefiting current Arab regimes, Wittes says that MEPI is “effectively choosing to support regimes’ chosen strategy of “controlled liberalization.”
The above-mentioned obstacles would be less significant, Wittes says, if MEPI succeeded in winning policy support from high-level officials in the current Administration.  It seems that the President’s rhetorical commitment to reform in the Middle East remains strong, but evidence suggests that opportunities for discussions with Arab leaders about human rights and democratic political development are consistently missed.  In the end, Wittes writes that none of MEPI’s reform goals will ever be adequately achieved without sincere support from and action on the part of top Administration and foreign policy officials.
In February of this year, Thomas Carothers, who directs the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, issued a policy brief entitled “A Better Way to Support Middle East Reform.”  His critique of MEPI echoes many of the concerns Wittes expresses, but is coupled with a concrete method for reforming the Initiative to help it better attain its objectives.
Because many people in the region are suspicious of American intentions there, Carothers says that the only way MEPI will become effective is when it becomes a separate entity from the State Department and is “re-launched as a private foundation.”  Both the Asia Foundation and the Eurasia Foundation serve as precedents for this sort of reform initiative.  As government-funded but privately run foundations, they have proven to be viable alternatives to direct government sponsorship of reform in foreign countries. 
In addition to the negative impact of an association with the American government, Carothers says that the State Department is not the ideal place to house MEPI because the long-term vision for reform needed cannot be fostered in a “crisis-oriented and often politicized policy bureaucracy.”  If MEPI is removed from the State Department and reestablished as a private foundation, it will be staffed by people hired in a competitive and open process that will ensure a staff knowledgeable about the region and committed to achieving development there.  Also, as a private foundation the Initiative could receive funding from a wider range of sources and would be permitted to work closely with organizations on the ground in the region without having to worry about remaining with the confining boundaries of official government protocols.
In the end, President Bush’s calls for economic, educational, and political reform in the Middle East appear to be aimed at achieving a level of stability in the region.  While cozy relationships with autocratic Middle Eastern leaders remain difficult to change quickly or drastically, the President seems to understand that such changes are imperative to the region’s development and prosperity.  Though riddled with flaws and thus far unimpressive in its achievements, MEPI remains the single US governmental initiative dedicated to reform in the Middle East and retains the potential to become an effective means of positive change.