Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pulling Torn Pictures of W out of Arab Trashcans

The Westerners who melded the Mayan religion with the writings of St. John the Divine and then turned it into what is apparently a horrific movie may have been right, because I’m quite certain what I heard at the National Endowment for Democracy at the conference on “Middle East Democrats and Their Vision for the Future” means the end of the world is coming.

An Arab said he wished George W. Bush would come back.

This wasn’t just any Arab, this was perhaps the most famous civil society activist in the entire Middle East North African chain of dictatorships pretending to be democracies, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, former political prisoner in Egypt, Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Drew University, and generally all around hero for humanity.

Dr. Ibrahim was part of a panel discussing “What assistance can the international community provide?” I’m really taking his idea out of context. His point – and there were others who agreed – was that the Obama administration is very weak in its democracy promotion efforts and that the level of pressure on regimes to change is not there. It is not the first time he has criticized President Obama - his August editorial in the Wall Street Journal outlined his disillusionment.

The panel – which consisted of Tamara Cofman Wittes, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Daniel Brumberg, United States Institute of Peace; Scott Carpenter, Keston Family Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Vidar Helgesen, Secretary-General of International IDEA; Dr. Aseel al-Awadhi, one of the four women members of the Kuwaiti Parliament; Musa Maaytah, Minister of Political Development in Jordan; and Nouzha Skalli, Minister of Social Development, Family, and Solidarity in Morocco – discussed the lack of pressure on Arab governments to reform, unlike during the Bush years, when even Pharaoh Mubarak relented a bit and held presidential elections (even if the elections themselves were a farce).

Cofman Wittes is a well-respected, academically-minded individual who up until her appointment was Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Democracy and Development Project, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Her CV is here. Her appointment means that she oversees the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Daniel Brumberg has written a lot about liberalization and Arab reform. Vidar Helgesen talked about European approaches to foreign assistance and spoke of the need to stop being so condescending to those groups receiving aid.

The tone of the conversation changed when Scott Carpenter began to speak. Carpenter formerly held Mrs. Cofman Wittes’ post under the Bush administration. He told us that an Egyptian civil society activist said to him they were pulling their torn pictures of Bush out of the garbage and taping them back together. Dr. Ibrahim agreed.

The problem, they say, is that the Obama administration focuses on talking to regimes rather than people, that the level of pressure on regimes to reform just isn’t there, and it is affecting what civil society reformers can accomplish.

Is the criticism warranted? Well let’s see. You have a prominent civil society activist saying there was more done during the Bush years than there has been under Obama. You have an appointment to the head of USAID that takes ten months. You have NGOs on the ground waiting to see what direction the administration is going to go.


Even during the twilight of the Bush years, the international community wondered if decades of foreign assistance to the Middle East North Africa region was all for naught. Nothing was changing, and regimes seemed to be getting stronger. In fact, the space created – a sort of Bizarro World kind of freedom – allowed just enough room for “Islamists” to have a voice that was loud enough for regimes to crack down on their people, claiming they were fighting terrorism. There was no political reform, no economic reform, just lip service spilling from the mouths of dictators (no matter how benign they were).

This was enough for the international community to begin asking itself how to change its approach to foreign aid. (In 2003, for example, Daniel Brumberg wrote Liberalization Versus Democracy: Understanding Arab Reform," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Working Paper #37). Throwing money at groups intent on loosening the dictatorial reigns of the Arab World has resulted in…the dethroning of Pharaoh Mubarak? No. The election of someone other than Ben Ali in Tunisia? No. The House of Saud becoming the House of Someone Else? No. Bashar Assad giving a concession speech after hotly contested elections? No.

I was four years old when Pharaoh Mubarak came to power. Lebanon was trying to commit suicide then, and Yemen was split into a microcosm of the commie vs. democracy world order. Habib Bourguiba had been Presidictator of Tunisia for twenty years and lasted another ten before Ben Ali became Presidictator in a coup. An Assad was the Presidictator of Syria. Jordan was ruled by the current king’s dad. Morocco was ruled by the current king’s dad. Saudi was ruled by the current king’s brother or half brother or something like that.

No, change has not come to the Middle East despite all of my tax dollars being funneled there. No we can’t!

Finally, though, someone woke up and started to ask why nothing is different except there are more people willing to blow themselves up. The international community began to reconsider its strategy to “make the world a better place” and decided that bandaids are not appropriate when your arm has been cut off. More democracy people began to say, “Forget the dinosaurs, let’s help the kids!” and youth and community development programs started to receive attention. Foreign assistance programs began to focus on the future rather than choking on the present.

I think like so many other aspects of his presidency, Obama is a victim of history when it comes to strategies towards foreign assistance. Seems that everyone is asking why hasn’t this worked, why have we failed, what can we do differently. He’s jumped into a time of uncertainty and transformation even in the approach to foreign aid. There is a reason it took ten months to appoint someone as head of USAID, and it isn’t because Obama was chopping brush on a ranch in Texas.

And who can honestly say his public diplomacy approach to international relations is a bad idea? Do those civil society activists longing for a return to foreign assistance under the Bush years want the bombs that come with it? That’s part of the package – scare dictators with bombs just enough to allow for some space, isn't it?

Look, President Obama’s deliberate approach to everything is frustrating, especially in the Twitterverse we live in, when two seconds is too long a wait for so many people. It has been ten months, hardly enough time to solve all of the world’s problems. With the appointment of Rajiv Shah as head of USAID and Cofman Wittes to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, it looks like the approach to foreign assistance is coming around, that a new strategy focusing on the long-term is being shaped, rather than bandaid fixes to election and economic laws that have been applied for so long now.

Right now, I guess it’s just wait and see.

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