Is US ‘downgrading signature Mideast democracy program’?

 

 

MEPI/State Dept.

MEPI/State Dept.

The Barack Obama administration has downgraded what was once a marquee program to promote democracy in the Middle East — a sign, some critics say, that counterterrorism once again dominates the US agenda in the region, analyst Barbara Slavin writes for Al-Monitor. Established in 2002, the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) touts on its website its work in “18 countries and territories” and contributions of more than $600 million to “support civil society groups, political activists, and business leaders in their efforts for political and economic reform, government transparency, and accountability projects.” …

However, the program —traditionally headed by a political appointee — is now run by a career foreign service officer and has been subsumed into the larger foreign aid bureaucracy that also handles security assistance. One of two offices MEPI long operated in the region — in Tunisia — is being moved from the region’s only successful new democracy to Morocco, a monarchy.

“Unfortunately, MEPI seems to be in the process of being gutted and losing its identity,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Al-Monitor…… “The decline [in the emphasis on democracy promotion] accelerated over the past year — the time when Anne Patterson came back and became assistant secretary,” he said. “MEPI’s demise is indicative of a broader backing off from supporting civil society and falling back into the old pattern of not antagonizing old allies.”

The State Department vigorously contested this criticism. 

A senior State Department official said that Patterson had ordered the reorganization not to downplay democracy promotion but because it made more “managerial sense” to put all foreign aid programs to Middle Eastern countries under one office. The official added that the Tunis office was being moved to Morocco for “logistical and administrative reasons.”

Arab-Uprisings-Explained1-198x300The official conceded that there had been changes in the US approach to democracy promotion — using more indirect methods and bringing more individuals to the United States for programs — but said this was more a function of new limitations placed on civil society groups by Middle Eastern governments than any reorientation of US policy…..

In its first term, the Obama administration “decided to reinvent this agenda,” Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of MEPI, told Al-Monitor. “It was not the ‘freedom agenda’ [of George Bush] but a different way of addressing the same set of issues.”

Wittes, who left the State Department in 2012 and now directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor “what has happened is the re-emergence of counterterrorism as the lens through which US policy is seen and formulated.”

The United States “has made a decision that it is fully prepared to go back to the business of overlooking significant problems with domestic governance, human rights and economic stability in the name of smooth bilateral cooperation” with governments fighting Islamic militants, she said.

“Partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the US government,” Obama said Sept. 23, touting a presidential memorandum instructing US government departments and agencies to “consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups” and “oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.”

According to Wittes, the irony is that the “Obama administration will leave office having brought Middle East policy full circle to what it was trying to get away from when it came in. The idea of supporting long-term political change has been pushed down the priority list to working with highly imperfect governments on a short-term counterterrorism agenda.”

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From politics to protest: taking it to the streets

IvanKrastevThe pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are just the latest in a wave of political protests that has swept the world since late 2010. In “From Politics to Protest,” Ivan Krastev (left) examines why people have been taking to the streets, not only where they are denied the right to freely elect their leaders (as in Hong Kong), but also in countries where they fully enjoy the right to vote. Krastev suggests that elections are losing their capacity to make voters feel that their voices are being heard, and he explores what this may mean for the future of democracy.

India’s sixteenth general elections heralded a new era in the country’s politics: The Hindu-nationalist BJP won an unprecedented absolute majority in parliament, while the long-dominant Congress party suffered a stunning defeat. Four essays by leading experts explain the electoral outcome, look at the economic implications of the BJP’s victory, weigh the possibility of renewed communal violence, and give a big-picture assessment of India’s future.

jodoctIndonesia held successful parliamentary elections in April and presidential elections in July. Yet the news is not all good. The parliamentary contest was marred by pervasive “money politics,” as Edward Aspinall explains in “Politics and Patronage,” and the presidential race was nearly won by Prabowo Subianto, a populist who “promised to undertake the radical and dangerous experiment of restoring Indonesia’s pre-democratic order.” In “How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived,” Marcus Mietzner cautions that “Indonesian democracy is still vulnerable, and will be for years to come.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Ghia Nodia writes on “The Revenge of Geopolitics,” part of a set of articles on “External Influence and Democratization” that also features pieces by Jakob Tolstrup and Steven Levitsky & Lucan Way; a pair of essays by João Carlos Espada and Liubomir Topaloff examine the rise of Euroskeptic parties in the EU and what it means; Richard Joseph explores the prospects for democracy in Africa through the lens of Nigeria; and Javier Corrales & Michael Penfold detail the growing trend in Latin America to relax or eliminate presidential term limits.

To see the complete Table of Contents, please visit www.journalofdemocracy.org.

 

Past as prologue? Call to fix US ‘human rights misstep’ with Vietnam

Vietnam_cu huyThe United States government made a mistake this month in relaxing a ban on lethal arms sales and transfers to Vietnam — a non-democratic, one-party state with an abysmal human rights record, says a leading rights activist.

The U.S. move, announced on October 2 as Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh was visiting Washington, undermines courageous activists in Vietnam and squanders important leverage that might have been used to encourage more reform, according to John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. 

An American diplomat says that Vietnam has made some progress in terms of its human-rights record, including the release this year of 11 prisoners of conscience. But a full lifting of the lethal-arms embargo, the diplomat says, would depend on “additional progress”, The Economist notes:

That may be some way off. Yet Tuong Vu, a Vietnam expert at the University of Oregon, says the American shift is a “clear case” of strategic interests trumping human rights. Many dissidents remain behind bars, and the one-party state continues to arrest its critics under worryingly vague national-security laws.

Cu Huy Ha Vu* (above), one of the political prisoners who was recently freed, is a Sorbonne-educated lawyer who was jailed in 2011 for, among other crimes, calling for multiparty government. After his release, Mr Ha Vu, the son of a revolutionary poet, flew directly to Washington, DC. He says he would one day like to see both a democratic Vietnam and a military alliance with America against Chinese expansionism. But, he adds, selling spy planes today, amid continuing domestic repression, only prolongs the regime’s survival.

Torture is still endemic in Vietnam, and the government has taken no steps towards scrapping laws that criminalize free speech or political organization,  Sifton writes for Foreign Policy:

Most recently released prisoners were terminally ill or otherwise incapacitated by poor health. In the case of the higher profile dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu — a lawyer and former Communist Party member who has criticized government leaders for corruption and mismanagement — the government did not release him but rather forced him into exile in the United States, where Hanoi believes he will be less able to organize opposition to Vietnam’s one-party rule.

*Cu Huy Ha Vu is a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Asian NGOs ‘concerned’ for Indonesian democracy

indonesia etcOn the eve of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s final Bali Democracy Forum, an international network of pro-democracy groups issued a statement criticizing setbacks in the country’s democracy, Handoko Nikodemus writes for the Rappler:

The Seoul-based Asian Democracy Network (ADN) said the controversial passage of the Regional Elections Law – which removes the right of Indonesians to directly elect their governors, mayors and district heads – “affects negatively the Indonesian reputation as a champion of democracy in Asia recent years”.

The statement is a blow to Yudhoyono, who initiated the annual forum in 2008 to showcase Indonesia’s successful transition to a democracy and provide a platform for dialogue and cooperation.

ADN said its statement was in solidarity with the 11 Indonesian civil society organizations that declined invitations to the first Bali Civil Society Forum, which took place Wednesday and Thursday, October 8-9, ahead of the 7th inter-governmental Bali Democracy Forum on Friday and Saturday….

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Russia’s international media ‘weaponized’ to poison minds

 

russia todayAt a time when Russia’s image in Europe and the U.S. has sunk to extreme lows, the Kremlin has announced dramatic new plans to increase spending on foreign propaganda, according to George Washington University’s Robert Orttung and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker. The Russian state budget includes a 41 percent increase for RT, the state-backed television network that broadcasts around the world in a number of languages. Rossiya Segodnya, the successor to the now defunct global news agency RIA Novosti, is set to see a tripling of its budget, they write for the Moscow Times:

The Kremlin is focused on poisoning minds through an insidious mix of information designed to muddy the media waters and disorient international audiences. ….It is telling that the growth in resources devoted to media beyond Russia’s borders is now outstripping those within them. At home, the Kremlin’s censorship and mass media control prevent alternative ideas from entering mainstream discussion and enable the government to dominate crucial narratives.

The Kremlin’s international propaganda applies a similarly cynical and manipulative approach, where it insinuates, for instance, that all societies are thoroughly corrupt and craven, suggesting moral equivalence between autocracies and democracies. RT unloads an endless stream of material seeking to portray the West, especially the U.S., in the most decadent of ways…..

As media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, debunking false information is time-consuming and expensive; the Kremlin’s fabrication of information is easy and relatively cheap. While the Kremlin tightens restrictions on the Internet at home, state media takes advantage of opportunities to make deeper inroads online beyond Russia’s borders. RT’s YouTube channel has garnered more than 1.3 billion views. Even accounting for clicks from phony accounts, this is a staggering number. 

Russia and authoritarian regimes claim that their media outlets are just like Deutsche Welle, BBC or Agence France-Presse, Orttung and Walker observe:

But RT operates under the direction of unchecked authoritarian political power and is therefore an entirely different enterprise. Accordingly, it should not be understood as a news outlet, but instead seen for what it is: a weaponized media instrument.

While it denies any meaningful space at home for independent voices, beyond its borders the Kremlin is flooding the media space with half-truths and outright lies with the aim of polluting audiences’ understanding of the world.

Given the serious stakes involved, the democracies must devise a far more thoughtful response  to meet the dual challenge of Russia’s intensifying censorship and modern propaganda, they conclude.  

Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

                                                                                                                           

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