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Why Is The House Skimping On Democracy In The Middle East?

[Guest post by Nathan Pippenger]

It’s fair to say that the United States was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring. But whatever the strategic consequences of that lack of preparedness, the financial consequences were hard for the State Department to ignore. New, unforeseen expenses were suddenly cropping up everywhere from Tunisia to Syria, and the instability of events made it difficult to predict where money would be needed next.

Or perhaps the problem wasn’t so obvious, at least not to the House of Representatives. Earlier this month, the House declined to fund a $770 million program requested by the State Department that would deal with this very issue. Known as the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund (MENA-IF), the money would operate as a kind of rainy-day fund for State. In March, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman defended MENA-IF before a House subcommittee on the grounds that when it comes political turmoil in the Middle East, the U.S. needs “to be flexible and able to respond swiftly to new developments.” Emerging pro-democracy forces may need our support—whether we anticipated the need or not. MENA-IF, says the State Department, would increase the U.S.’s flexibility and keep officials from having to constantly reshuffle existing resources as events change.

For that reason, the exact distribution of MENA-IF dollars remains somewhat undetermined. Feltman, in his testimony, said State would use the money “to support democratic governance and human rights, to promote security and justice sector reform, to strengthen regional trade and investment architecture, and to promote private sector job growth […] to support discrete projects or activities that complement and support the host governments’ own actions, focusing our efforts where particular U.S. experience and expertise is needed.”

That reasoning was enough for the Senate, which approved MENA-IF, but it didn’t satisfy skeptical members of the House. Kay Granger (R-TX), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, complained in March that “it is not clear why those principles could not simply be applied to existing authorities,” since the bill “already includes accounts for contingencies.” “We will need more information,” she concluded, “to justify the need for a new fund.” That sentiment was echoed by Granger’s Democratic colleague, Nita Lowey of New York. “Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments,” her spokesperson told Foreign Policy. But, he added, that didn’t mean Lowey would support MENA-IF: “Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility.”

This is odd logic for at least two reasons. By State’s own account, as revolutions unfolded across the Middle East last year, its available contingency resources were simply not enough—forcing it to cut corners elsewhere. But even more confusing is the insistence, implicit especially in Granger’s request, that State be more forthcoming about how they will spend the money. That’s the entire point of the request: They don’t know!

At a time of maximal instability, the State Department can’t pretend to know how events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria will develop.  If the government is to act quickly and flexibly—you know, like everyone always says they want it to do—then we need to give it the authority and funding to do so. All this haggling over price tags and details is dispiriting in two ways: First, it suggests that Rep. Granger and the Committee don’t grasp the fund’s point. But second, and more troublingly, it suggests that they don’t grasp its importance. 

Nathan Pippenger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.