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Sarah Margon

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U.S. Foreign Assistance and the Arab Spring: Bold, but Not Bold Enough

Posted: 05/31/11 02:01 PM ET

President Barack Obama's May 19th speech was an important and long overdue departure from previous U.S. policy towards the Middle East. After months of struggling to keep up with events on the ground, President Obama finally presented some core priorities to help guide the nation's response to the Arab Spring. Speaking to the diplomatic corps from the 7th floor of the U.S. State Department -- the symbolism of his surroundings was lost on no one -- the President's message was clear: to adapt to a new reality, U.S. policy toward the region will undergo a major shift.

Unfortunately, media headlines focused on predictable controversy surrounding Middle East peace and overlooked the speech's genuinely innovative approach to development.

The President's pledge to provide some debt relief to Egypt, immediate assistance to Egypt and Tunisia -- as well as other governments in transition -- are commitments that will be welcomed across the region. The strong defense of civil society is another meaningful development priority. Equally as important was President Obama's decision to keep elevating development as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

Of course, the President could have gone further. Foreign assistance is a strategic investment, and requires an appetite for risk and reward. President Obama's proposals will not go far in addressing the critical barriers to development in the Arab world unless they are linked to more long-term, multilateral initiatives.

The U.S. decision to relieve Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt is a step in the right direction, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the massive debt burden incurred by the previous regime. The White House must work with other international partners and organizations -- especially those in the Paris Club and the Gulf -- to create the conditions whereby Egypt's debt can be managed in the short term and alleviated in the long term.

The President's emphasis on private sector investment and trade struck the right tone, but lacked substance. Egyptian-American and Tunisian-American Enterprise Funds will surely help stimulate investment, but the President neglected to outline a clear path for passage in Congress given the challenges regularly encountered when trying to secure trade agreements.

And while the promised 50,000 metric tons of wheat to Jordan is likely to help that country's food security in the short term, such a massive commodity dump undermines the sustainable principles of food aid. The President's strategy for global development requires that we help countries and citizens become more self-sufficient and take more responsibility for, and ownership of, their own development. The provision of wheat as an immediate solution to address food insecurity concerns should be followed by a clear plan to help Jordanians break the cycle of food insecurity that impacts them the most.

Several of the President's policy prescriptions reflected the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network's (MFAN) recent policy paper: "A New Approach to U.S. Assistance in a Changing Middle East." Moving forward, MFAN's specific recommendations could help the President operationalize his relatively ambiguous foreign assistance message in the days and weeks to come. The U.S. should continue to consult with a broad range of actors in Egypt and Tunisia, even those who, in the President's words, have a political agenda that, "does not square with our worldview." Even in this tough budget environment, the President could dedicate new resources to empower civil society activists -- especially women and young people -- and ensure that their newly won freedoms are not rolled back.

Lastly, the President must speak more openly and boldly about rebalancing U.S. development and security assistance in the Middle East. For too long, U.S. spending in the Middle East was disproportionately weighted toward arms transfers to repressive regimes.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted recently that: "...the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither." These words remain a compelling mantra for U.S. policy today. There is still ample time for a senior U.S. official to announce a sizable up-front investment in civilian institutions for Middle Eastern countries undergoing Democratic transitions.

The newly formed Deauville Partnership announced at last week's G8 summit is an important indication of how the United States can work multilaterally to bolster the political and economic reforms in transitioning countries like Tunisia and Egypt. We must be cautious, however, to ensure there is a clear understanding of how critical reform is in both political and economic areas at the same time given the deep inter-linkages between the two. Furthermore, expectations of immediate gains could mean pressure to revert to old models of assistance, which would be only more likely to fail.

As events continue to unfold across the Middle East, President Obama should acknowledge the limitations a security-centric approach to the entire region and endorse a universal vision that is centered on broad and inclusive economic and social development. Time-tested development principles, such as those advanced in MFAN's recently released major policy paper, "From Policy to Practice," will help lead the way to a more self-sufficient, stable, and prosperous Middle East.

Some analysts have claimed this new framework amounts to a half-doctrine because it applies to some countries (Libya and Syria) while others get virtually a free pass (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). The administration needs to recognize that a two-tiered approach is unacceptable if we really expect to see comprehensive, sustainable change. As a first step, however, intensifying engagement on the principles proposed by the President last week will underpin genuine political and economic reform and help ensure that the U.S. does not end up on the wrong side of history. The second step, of course, is to ensure these principles are applied across the board so we are consistent and reliable in our adherence to these principles -- not selective and indecisive.