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Within the $51.6 billion slated for funding the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in President Obama's proposed budget for FY2013 is a request for $770 million to establish a "Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund." The purpose of the Fund, according to the budget document ("Department of State and Other Interrnational Programs" [warning: .pdf]), is to "provide incentives for long-term economic, political, and trade reforms to countries in transition—and to countries prepared to make reforms proactively."

Via Reuters, Obama proposes $800 million in aid for "Arab Spring"

(Reuters) - The White House announced plans on Monday to help "Arab Spring" countries swept by revolutions with more than $800 million in economic aid, while maintaining U.S. military aid to Egypt.

In his annual budget message to Congress, President Barack Obama asked that military aid to Egypt be kept at the level of recent years—$1.3 billion—despite a crisis triggered by an Egyptian probe targeting American democracy activists.

The proposals are part of Obama's budget request for fiscal year 2013, which begins October 1. His requests need the approval of Congress, where some lawmakers want to cut overseas spending to address U.S. budget shortfalls and are particularly angry at Egypt.

Additional information, some thoughts and a little meta after the whazzit...

The section of the budget document in which the Fund is introduced is worth citing in full (pp.152-3):

Maintains U.S. Global Leadership

Assists Countries in Transition and Promotes Reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.  Building on the Administration’s significant and continuing response to the transformative events in the Middle East and North Africa region, the Budget provides over $800 million to support political and economic reform in the region. The Budget expands our bilateral economic support in countries such as Tunisia and Yemen where transitions are already underway. Consistent with the President’s May 2011 speech, the Budget establishes a new $770 million Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, which will provide incentives for long-term economic, political, and trade reforms to countries in transition—and to countries prepared to make reforms proactively. This new Fund builds upon other recently announced programs in the region, including up to $2 billion in regional Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) financing, up to $1 billion in debt swaps for Egypt, and approximately $500 million in existing funds re-allocated to respond to regional developments in 2011.

The proposed Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund puts some flesh on the bones of the Obama Administration's perspective on and approach to the "Arab Spring" as indicated in the President's State of the Union address on 24 January 2012 (full-text via AP):
As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana'a to Tripoli. A year ago, Qadhafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators— a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed, and that human dignity can't be denied.

How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome. And while it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings—men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.

Now, with all honesty, if the funding for the Fund was to be approved by Congress as is, I personally would have few complaints. American economic incentives to countries in MENA witnessing the emergence of democratizing institutions is, in theory, good policy and uncontentious in my view. The framing as an "Incentive Fund" clarifies the Administration's realistic approach to these "uncertain" transformations: quid (incentive) pro quo (development of democratizing institutions.)

Of course, I am not so naïve to expect that Congress will simply approve the budget request for the Department of State and USAID generally, or the Incentive Fund specifically, without comment.

The coming debate over economic aid to countries in MENA is going to be shaped, in part, by the retention in the proposed budget for FY2013 of the $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt. The current tension in U.S.—Egyptian relations emanating from the Egyptian government's treatment of NGOs and the criminal charges against nineteen Americans affiliated with four of these NGOs (International Center for Journalists [3]; Freedom House [2]; International Republican Institute [7, including Sam LaHood]; National Democratic Institute [7]) will certainly impact the debate. Cue Gingrich's rehash of "the Obama hostage crisis" in 3... 2... 1...

While the proposed budget was just released yesterday, our dear commenters across the Islamophobic blogosphere are already latching onto the Incentive Fund as "evidence" for President Obama's support for, nay allegiance with, Islamists. Headlines such as "Obama proposes $800 million in aid for Muslim Brotherhood" and Pam Geller's "American Jizya: Obama proposes $800 million in aid for 'Islamic Spring'" have already appeared among the freaky fringers and, recognizing how little distance separates the fringe Right from their Congress-critters, I anticipate that the debate over the Incentive Fund will devolve into some ugly, essentialist and wholly predictable tropes.

I also expect that we may finally see some motion on H.R.440 / S.1245, "The Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2011," authorizing the President to appoint a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia within the Department of State. S.1245 was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 22 June 2011, where it has languished, yet what better opportunity to reawaken hot-button discussion of this Special Envoy than in the context of economic assistance to countries in MENA?

In summary, I think that the proposed Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund is a reasonable and realistic proposition. I also think that it will not prove uncontroversial in American political discourse and I expect that it will be cynically misrepresented and exploited by the Right, among the whackadoodles and Republican politicians, to the extent that they are distinguishable.

"Interesting times," right?

UPDATE: not that anyone seems too interested, but the Department of State Background Briefing and Briefing from yesterday shed light on some of the details (and rationales) of the budget proposals.

Originally posted to angry marmot on Tue Feb 14, 2012 at 07:36 AM PST.

Also republished by Eyes on Egypt and the Region and Adalah — A Just Middle East.

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