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.”
The 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.”