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Cutting US foreign assistance bad for economy, Arab democracy

August 2, 2011 1 comment

Everyone knows US foreign assistance is slated for spending cuts, but recent aid authorization bills show the major differences already forming between the House and Senate. Never has there been a better opportunity and greater need for democracy promotion and US aid than the Arab Spring. But if the House gets its way, that will mean a sharply decreased US role abroad — and, as I will argue, to the detriment of the US economy.

First, let’s start with the facts. The foreign assistance fund — which includes food aid, supporting stable democratic institutions and the like — is not in any way related to the defense budget. Politicians usually lump the two together, whether intentionally or not, because our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have undertaken the ostensible role of democracy promotion. But when you look at the numbers, foreign assistance accounts for a mere 1 percent of the US budget. That still hasn’t stopped people like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., from suggesting cuts of 44 percent by 2016. By comparison defense budget — cuts to which the House has tried to avoid — is the largest spending item in the US budget, comprising 24 percent of total spending this fiscal year.

Many people believe the US should turn inward — some argue the nation cannot project itself abroad when it cannot take care of its economic issues at home. I don’t buy that argument. US-based nongovernmental organizations will continue to do a lot of the heavy lifting overseas when it comes to international aid, but they will need government grants to keep major operations going. Denying those funds could lead to job loss, so keeping foreign assistance at current funding levels will keep Americans at work.

Also, it is in US economic interests to promote healthy governments and citizens because it will lead to economic rewards in the future. Corrupt, undemocratic governments will generally operate at the expense of their own people largely by keeping growing wealth for the government elite. That means people have less money to spend on more expensive American goods, which in turn dampens US overseas profits.

Curbing corruption will also ensure future US investment is not wasted. Billions of dollars of US investment — both from the federal government and private citizens or corporations — get lost among red tape or swindling politicians in corrupt foreign nations. Some of those nations — such as Afghanistan, Mongolia and India — sit on treasures of natural resources the US lacks, so US business interests are more than happy to invest. Cleaning up those states would produce a greater return on that investment.

In terms of the hopeful new Arab democracies, US foreign assistance can help build trust between those governing in Arab nations and the US officials with whom they will be communicating. It’s no secret that Egyptians oppose US meddling, a fear the military there is exploiting. But it’s not the Arab street the US must win over — it’s the new, democratically-elected leaders with whom the US must curry favor. The US already is training potential political leaders in Libya, Syria and Egypt — certainly a good start. The US wants to be the nation those new leaders look toward for guidance, but cutting foreign assistance will imperil the US ability to help guide new Arab democracies through the troubles they will encounter during nascent stages. In turn, that will dampen the ability to do everything from strike bilateral trade agreements to establishing and supporting sound human rights protections.

On top of the general budget malaise, a Foreign Relations Authorization bill currently going through the motions on Capitol Hill makes it more difficult for the US to use international aid in corrupt nations:

The corruption indicator has a range of uncertainly (especially around the median) and can have time lags of up to two years.  Using the control of corruption indicator as a hard hurdle for all U.S. economic and development assistance without addressing the inherent problems in the indicator could prove highly challenging.

That bill, pushed by the House (there also is a less restrictive Senate version) is not likely to pass in the Senate. But the writing is on the wall for US foreign assistance. If this debt ceiling fiasco proved anything, it’s that the House and Senate are beholden to very different interests and views. The House will champion spending cuts abroad because, rhetorically, it sounds good. The House will stomach defense cuts, but it will not digest those cuts easily. Still, it’s the assault on foreign assistance that should induce gagging.

 

Ramadan could put Syria sectarian struggle in motion as attacks, protests increase (w/ video)

Ramadan began Monday, which could spark a fresh spate of protests and ensuing violence in Syria — some of which may lend itself to sectarian undertones. During Islam’s holy month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Muslims congregate at mosques following sunset. The majority-Sunni Syrian population will therefore have a means to meet up and discuss the atrocities being committed by its government, which is largely controlled by the minority (about 12 percent of the population) Alawite sect of Islam.

The attacks also will do nothing to silence the murmurs of sectarian strife in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood accused Bashar al-Assad’s government Sunday of igniting sectarian conflict:

“Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria.”

The Brotherhood’s timing is significant. Many people have suggested Syria would devolve into sectarian crisis, and Ramadan could best amplify that sentiment. Alawites view fasting during Ramadan as merely symbolic, whereas it is one of the five pillars of Islam that Sunni Muslims observe without question.

Hama, a central Syrian Sunni stronghold, suffered 80 deaths at the hands of government-backed security forces Monday. Such violence will only magnify the growing divide between ruling forces and people at large.

What is getting less attention than the actual violence itself is the opportunity Ramadan will give Sunnis to organize. Under the cover of the mosque, Syrians can organize face-to-face and discuss strategy with less fear of backlash. Meeting in a mosque is inherently safer than a coffee shop, and physical communication removes the risks of internet and telecommunications contact. It could also help bring protest outsiders into the revolution as they see the passion with which protesters carry themselves.

But at the same time, various Muslim sects meeting daily for prayer during Islam’s holiest month as violence continues may foment discriminatory, sectarian views. To this point, many Syrians believe President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated violence to make it appear more sectarian. By doing so, al-Assad can claim his rule is important for restoring order so the nation does not devolve into sectarian war. However, as violence and protests ramp up this month, it will be increasingly plausible to Syrians that a sectarian struggle is on the horizon.

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, established a sophisticated patronage network by installing the formerly disregarded Alawite minority into top business, police and military positions. That network has provided Bashar al-Assad unflagging loyalty, as if the regime falls, so do those top Alawites who benefited from al-Assad corruption and thuggery.

As attacks continue during Ramadan, Sunnis will grow more enraged with the regime. Alawites do not share the same view as Sunnis when it comes to the holy month. The differences between sects will never be more pronounced than during the next 40 days.

 

Editorial cartoon of the day

Like father, like son

The central Syria city of Hama was the epicenter of 1980s protests, when minority Alawite ruler Hafez al Assad mercilessly murdered at least 20,000 of the Syrian majority Sunnis there. Hama has now risen against Hafez’s son, Bashar, where protests grew to 300,000 led by a mostly secular Sunni crowd. Bashar had pulled forces out of Hama last month, only to remove the regional governor and return with force.

Of course, pacifying (or, more likely, forcefully ending) Hama will be different for Bashar than it was for Hafez. Word travels quickly now with social media, but Hafez was able to (however paradoxically) quietly massacre the mostly-Islamist led revolt in 1982 because it took days for word to circulate around the country. There are more eyes on Bashar, so it will be interesting to see how far the apple falls from the tree.

A Syria city rallies in support of Assad as ‘fresh’ violence breaks out

This rally in Sweida, a city south of Damascus, at first seems vaguely reminiscent of North Korea allegedly paying Chinese actors to pose as fans during last summer’s World Cup. It seems counterintuitive to have such massive support for Bashar al Assad considering all the government-led violence against civilians.

Sweida is not representative of  a majority of Syria. It is heavily populated by Druze, a minority population that had been violently persecuted in the middle of the 20th century by the Syrian military when the country was under French control. When Hafez al Assad took power in the 1960s, he elevated Druze and Alawites to prominent military positions, seeking to institutionalize loyalty for the minority Alawite leader in a predominantly Sunni nation. Sunnis comprise 74 percent of Syria’s population and have been relegated to the political sidelines because of the patronage system Hafez al Assad started. Alawites represent 12 percent of Syria, while Druze is at 3 percent.

Syrian rights group estimated more than 1,400 civilians have died since protests began. Assad said Monday he would announce reforms, which are largely expected to have little substance or effect. Some of the largest anti-government protests (the first video below) occurred today in response to the Assad-declared “National Unity Day” in support of the government.

The Sweida rally video is below this video from an anti-Assad protest today, which is a more accurate representation of Syria:

 

Here’s the Sweida video:

 

Impact of Jordan decision not to recognize Palestinian statehood

Jordan’s announcement that it would not recognize the Palestinian Authority’s seemingly imminent unilateral declaration of statehood will send shockwaves around the Arab world. While the Arab Spring has united the Arab world and occurred irrespective of the Palestinian statehood question, the Hashemite Kingdom’s stance will certainly provoke strong reaction.

Arab leaders have rallied around the Palestinian cause for political gain, although the only Arab country with a true vested interest in Palestinians is Jordan. Most Arab nations — Syria being the most prominent example — have used Palestinians as rhetoric and as a political football. Many Arab nations reject Palestinian citizens from entering their borders, as even the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been met with resistance.

Jordan's border with Israel and West Bank could be more volatile with Palestinian statehood

Jordan, however, begrudgingly accepted Palestinians. They are second class citizens in that country despite comprising nearly half the population. So if anyone is an authority on Palestinian statehood and refugees in the Arab world, it’s Jordan.

But as new Arab governments come to power, they may be less beholden to United States and other Western influences. The U.S. supported many Arab dictators — like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — because they were willing to support Israel’s right to exist. However, that view was not aligned with the Arab street in those nations. As democratically elected governments come to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and possibly Libya in due time, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to interfere and pressure those leaders to support the unpopular cause of aiding Israel.

Jordan may now have partially ostracized itself among a new group of Arab leaders by essentially breaking a party line. It will be interesting to see how accepted Jordan is when a new government in Egypt takes control. And if Bashar al Assad remains in power, Jordan will not be spared from his vitriol. Same goes for Iran.

Jordan’s stance on Palestinian statehood breaks from Arab solidarity on that issue. Jordan already has set itself apart from Arab nations by its cool but cordial relations with Israel, which may be more for Jordan’s own border security than shared ideological beliefs. Jordan maintains respectable ties with Israel out of necessity because they share a border. Their histories would not naturally align the two.

And that is why Jordan is making this decision — the border. A unilaterally-declared Palestinian state would mean Israeli involvement, as it could be considered aggressive behavior because Israel believes it has a right to settlements in the West Bank. Politically, Jordan had to try its best to maintain the status quo and keep as quiet a border as possible with Israel and the West Bank. By not lending its support to Palestinian statehood, Jordan shields itself from Israeli blame and the associated political ramifications.

The U.S. will undoubtedly veto any UN Security Council resolution, so the Palestinian Authority will have to appeal to the General Assembly for symbolic support of statehood. Nothing will be official until the Security Council agrees, which is unlikely for the indefinite future.

Side note:

Interestingly, the YNet story also had this to say about Palestinian identification papers in Jordan:

Meanwhile, the paper also reported that Jordan is preparing to cancel the identification papers provided for Palestinian statesmen and their families. The decision was explained as a move that began with a 1988 ruling “to disengage from the West Bank and maintain Palestinian identity”.

The wording is extremely vague. I’m not sure yet what it means to “cancel” identification papers. The papers were issued to Palestinian refugees beginning in 1988 to distinguish them from Jordanian citizens. The Jordanian government put a nice spin on it with that quote, but it ultimately has been used to discriminate against Palestinians in Jordan rather than to “maintain Palestinian identity” out of some source of nationalistic pride. By canceling these papers, are Palestinians in Jordan recognized as the same as Jordanians? Or are they now officially nomads with no national identity or rights? I’ll have to look into this.

Syria’s tyranny of the minority

Syria’s current governance problem can be explained from the ground-up argument that its civil society is much to blame for Bashar al Assad’s gross abuse of power.

First, let’s get some facts out of the way: Syria “continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel ban,” has repeatedly tortured civilians, is ranked 173 of 178 countries for freedom of the press, has systematically discriminated against certain ethnic groups and has been ruled by one family under martial law since 1963.

Syria’s government right now, however, can be classified by a simple analogy — Assad’s party and confidants are like the scrawny kid who got picked on all throughout middle school. But sometime over summer vacation their voices dropped a few octaves, they got taller, lifted some weights and now have a bloodthirst for vengeance.

Assad is an Alawite, which make up less than 10 percent of the Syrian population. Sunni Muslims, which comprise a majority of Syria, consider Alawites heretical, as their highly secretive beliefs incorporate forms of Christianity and other religions. Alawis, for example, celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Before the Assad-led Baath Party came to power in 1963, Alawis were relegated to a lower rung of Syrian society, stripped of most legal rights and often taking menial labor jobs. But then Hafez al Assad came to power, consolidated the military under his control and placed Alawites in top military positions to secure loyalty.

Bashar al Assad is reportedly stirring the sectarian pot — many believe Assad is trying to frame the violence in Syria as a sectarian outbreak, which would keep his minority Alawite group in Assad’s control for fear of persecution should the Assad regime fall. Assad has spun this scenario and forged allegiance from top military officials as a result.

Alawites are no longer persecuted as they were in the pre-Assad days, but that doesn’t mean Alawites have distanced themselves from that memory. It is unlikely Assad would give up power anyway, and clinging to that time long ago when Alawites were mere housemaids will help him maintain some semblance of support.

At the core of this paranoid power struggle is a civil society and national history that have both failed to protect minorities. During the United States’ nascent years, the founding fathers wrote about “tyranny of the majority” because the colonists were oppressed by an entrenched group of people with longstanding institutions and history.

But in a nation like Syria that has a history of systematic discrimination against minorities and no stable institutions for checks and balances against abuse of power, the minority is more likely to abuse the seat of the throne.

Assad’s regime will fall eventually, there is no question. The only way to prevent something like that from happening again, however, is to ensure no long history of abuse, discrimination or prejudice ever exists again. Preventing rising resentment among ethnic or religious groups will allow Syria’s citizens to come together and draft a system of checks and balances against power. There is certainly incentive to do that now that Syrians can see what can happen when the wrong people have too much power.

Trust is part one. There must be a mutual desire between all ethnic groups in Syria to come to the negotiating table. Given the decades of sectarian framing from the Assad family, that will be quite difficult. But in doing so, coming together will drastically reduce the chances of a tyrannical minority from coming to power.

 

Sunday links

Here are some links from the weekend that will make you think. I’ll try to do this every Sunday because who subscribes to newspapers anymore?

Iran is building a state-run Internet to that will help them control social media that helped bring about the Arab Spring and the 2009 Green Revolution.

Iran recently confirmed plans to establish a self-enclosed national Internet – a two-tier or dual network, comprising a publicly available but easily monitored Internet, with restricted access to the wider Web; and an open access Internet for government, business and tourists. Cuba, Burma, Russia and China are trying to form similar two-tier systems.

Yasser Hareb writes for the Gulf News about how Arab journalists must Tweet change to grab youth.

When half of the population in the Arab world is under the age of 25, it becomes a fact that half of the media’s targeted audience is young people using smart phones and new means of communications. Those young people do not want to sit and watch news bulletins on TV and will not be disappointed if they miss a certain programme; nor will they wait for the re-run.

Mona Eltahawy says “virginity tests” administered by the Egyptian government blur the line between politics and sex.

Let’s be clear, “virginity tests” are common in Egypt and straddle class and urban/rural divides. Be it the traditional midwife checking for a hymen on a bride’s wedding night, or a forensics expert or doctor called in after a prospective bridegroom’s suspicions, young women are forced to spread their legs to appease the god of virginity. But no one talks about it.

But it’s different when the state/SCAF is the one forcing women’s legs apart. A protest is planned for Saturday. It’s a perfect time for gender to come out of the revolution’s closet.

Following Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s failure to reform government in 100 days, protesters took to the streets.

With security greatly improved in Iraq, the citizenry has finally had the time to focus upon other issues such as governance and services. The country has been hit by twenty years of wars and sanctions, which have devastated its infrastructure. Despite the expenditure of several billion dollars in reconstruction funds, water, electricity, health care, etc., have not caught up with demand.

A martyr may spur a revolution to change the monarch’s role in Morocco, says Betwa Sharma in Foreign Policy.

Kamal Amari, 30, was a university graduate with a degree in physics who worked as a private security officer at the port in the western city of Safi. On May 29, he was caught up in the crackdown there. “Seven policemen beat him for five minutes,” said Adel Fathi, a friend.

On June 2, Amari succumbed to his wounds. Local activists call him the “first martyr” of Morocco’s freedom movement. His death has transformed Safi into a front line of the country’s protest movement.

Muhammad Faour of the Carnegie Middle East Center says Arab nations must use revolutions as a launching pad for education reform and teaching young Arabs what it means to be a citizen.

Educating young Arabs for citizenship requires much more fundamental reform than what has so far been undertaken in education reform plans. It requires getting past several serious shortcomings in the Arab education and political systems.

These shortcomings begin at the individual student level, including low learning achievement; lack of creative, independent, and critical thinking; and lack of problem-solving skills. They also include the home or family level, which is often guided by authoritarianism, obedience to authority figures, limited freedom of expression, and dependence on a family network for prospective employment.

Elliot Abrams says he believes democracy will take root in Syria when and if Bashar al Assad’s regime falls.

Some day, and tomorrow would not be soon enough, the Assad mafia will be gone and Syria will face the difficult challenge  of building a democracy after decades of bloody repression.  The Damascus Declaration—and the courage of those who wrote it and suffered time in Assad’s prisons for their principles and their patriotism—provides Syrians with the key guidelines to follow, and provides us all with some hope that democracy can indeed be built in Syria.

 

 

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