The Progressive Fix

Small Spending Cuts’ Big Impact on America in the Middle East

Now is the winter of discontent for Middle East dictators. A great political awakening is roiling the region – which makes this exactly the wrong moment to weaken America’s ability to help people struggling to free themselves.

House Republicans, however, are determined to do just that. Oblivious to the growing democratic ferment in the Muslim world, they voted last week to cut funding for U.S. diplomacy and assistance by some $4.4 billion, along with a haircut for the National Endowment for Democracy (or NED, and full disclosure: Will Marshall is a member of NED’s board). Although it usually flies under policy-makers’ radar, the NED is America’s premier instrument for assisting democratic transitions in long-closed societies.

To be fair, President Obama’s new budget proposes an even deeper cut (12 percent versus the GOP’s six percent) in the NED’s already miniscule $118 million budget, though it wouldn’t take effect until next year.

These changes were tucked deep in the giant, $61 billion package of 2011 spending reductions the House approved last week in a frenzy of misplaced fiscal probity. We hope the Senate doesn’t overlook them as it tries to salvage something sensible from the House package and continue funding the federal government. If you want to establish your bona fides as a resolute budget cutter and enemy of big deficits, domestic spending isn’t the place to look for serious savings. The real money is in the big middle class entitlement programs and in tax expenditures, backdoor spending programs that cost the federal government over $1 trillion a year.

We are fiscal hawks, but these untimely cuts in democracy assistance illustrate the perfect folly of trying to balance the budget on the back of domestic discretionary spending, which accounts for only 13 percent of total federal outlays. They are too small to make an appreciable dent in America’s $1.6 trillion deficit, but they would curtail our ability to support the spread of America’s democratic ideals in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The NED was established in 1983 under the bipartisan auspices of Ronald Reagan and Democratic Rep. Dante Fascell of Florida. They believed the United States needed a non-official way to lend a helping hand to homegrown reformers. Funneling support through a non-government entity like the NED rather than the State Department or USAID makes it hard for autocrats to tar recipients as tools of American policy.

Since its inception, NED has backed virtually every significant struggle for freedom in the world. It helped ease democratic political transitions in Poland, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria and Russia. Crucially, it nurtures political dissidents from Burma to Cuba, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo in China, as well as countless lesser-known but equally courageous champions of human rights and democracy.

The NED and its core institutes are active in the Middle East and North Africa, although its nearly $22 million in annual grants to the region now seems wholly inadequate. In Egypt, for example, its micro-grants support youth participation in government, workers’ rights and – presciently, in light of the crucial role Twitter and Facebook played in drawing crowds to Cairo’s Tahrir square – digital media workshops for young people. In Yemen, another flash point, the NED supports young entrepreneurs and helps human rights and women’s empowerment groups build capacity.

Facing a snap vote in just six months, Egypt is ill-prepared for a democratic transition. It has no organized opposition parties and its civic groups, non-governmental organizations, and democratic institutions are—to be generous—underdeveloped. This is no time to be denying U.S. policy-makers the tools they need to help. But seeding the ground for democracy in the Middle East is a long game. Whatever the outcome in Egypt, we need a sustained and strengthened effort to help local reformers throughout the region put in place the building blocks of an independent civil society and functioning democracy.

That is the NED’s mission, and it needs more resources, not fewer. If our political leaders really want to show they are serious about whittling down America’s monstrous debts, they ought to follow Willie Sutton’s advice and go where the money is.

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