As the forces for democracy reverberate across the Middle East and North Africa, now is not the time to slash support for their efforts. From Tunisia and Egypt to Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, the region is alive with the makings of a fourth wave of democratic transitions, following Latin America, Eastern Europe and much of Africa and Asia. As Congress and the Obama administration consider tough budget choices, they should do everything they can to help democracy leaders ride the wave until it cleanses all shores -- or we may see the wave crash before it even crests.
U.S. leadership is critical now, and it must reflect our own democratic values more than bolster repressive governments who have manipulated alliances with the United States to stay in power. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama espoused powerful rhetoric for democracy in the region that was later criticized for not being followed up with decisive action. What have received less attention -- and may be on the congressional cutting board even though they represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget -- are the long-term international assistance programs that have supported justice reform and local civil society organizations struggling for rights and transparency across the Middle East and the world.
Many Americans may be unaware of the efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Institute of Peace, the latter slated for elimination in the budgetary proposal that passed the House. But advocates for the democratic participation and rights of women and men around the globe have competed for and received U.S. support from these agencies.
Youth under the age of 30 comprise up to 65 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa. Their aspirations will determine the future of the region. The transparency and accountability of our democratic system, with its legacy of middle-class development and potential for economic growth and equity, resonates with them. Our record of shoring up some of the nastiest tyrants of the last 50 years -- the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- does not. One young Egyptian told CNN that he knew the United States would be on the side of whoever prevailed in order to protect its "interests."
That limited concept of our interests is being challenged by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, internationally minded Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar and U.S. policy advocates. Secretary Gates has called for a 3D approach to integrate defense, diplomacy and development for more balance in our strategic initiatives. A recent State Department review recommended greater focus on the security of people in foreign countries and stronger support for citizens working for accountability and resolution of social conflict. Lugar has questioned "a narrow, security-driven definition of success" in Afghanistan. U.S. advocacy groups have proposed that peacebuilding capacity be a focus area of a reformed Foreign Assistance Act.
Massive budget cuts in our capacity to support democracy -- just when our government is finally developing a more balanced strategy to use the tools of peace and justice initiatives more effectively -- could take the United States out of play just when the tipping point may have finally been reached. Foreign assistance to the democratically inclined citizens of countries that have waited far too long for this opportunity will continue to be crucial for their success. The United States cannot be perceived as keeping them waiting if we want to continue to exercise maximum leadership on the world stage.
Those who prefer the appearance of stability offered by non-democratic allies will point out that transforming our policies may lead to greater uncertainty. But if the choice is to go on supporting autocrats for short-term advantage, then we can be certain that our leverage in the world will decline. A better choice is to engage broadly, support with financial assistance and lead with a vision for democracy. That is the option that exemplifies our best political traditions and resonates with the democratic aspirations of the people who have challenged the status quo we have been helping to maintain.
Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.