The Obama administration has given up on promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa after the initial promise of the so-called Arab Spring yielded violent revolutions, experts say.
President Barack Obama was initially upbeat about the regional protests sparked by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire. He declared in a May 2011 speech that "it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy."
Obama struck a different tone in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last September. The speech was delivered amid the backdrop of a bloody two-year civil war in Syria and a second revolution in Egypt that again installed a military-backed government.
The president listed confronting external aggression against allies, ensuring the free flow of energy, dismantling terrorist networks, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction as America’s "core interests in the region." Democracy and human rights were fifth.
Critics say the shift in Obama’s language reflects an incoherent foreign policy in the region that has veered from promoting democracy to prioritizing security.
"The president has clearly shown that political convenience governs his approach to democracy and human rights in the Middle East," said David Adesnik, a visiting national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied democracy promotion, in an email. "He ignored the subject as a candidate, then, at the high point of the Arab Spring, he declared that freedom was a ‘top priority’ of U.S. foreign policy."
"Yet just two years later, he pointedly told the United Nations that democracy and human rights are not one of our ‘core interests’ in the region," he added. "The bottom line is that Obama has no strategic vision that integrates our principles with our security."
Critics also point to declining funding for democracy promotion in the Middle East as evidence of the Obama administration’s conflicting approaches.
The administration requested $770 million from Congress in its 2013 budget proposal for a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) "Incentive Fund" that would "provide incentives for long-term economic, political, and trade reforms to countries in transition." It lowered that request to $580 million in its 2014 budget proposal.
The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress on Thursday night does not provide any money for the MENA fund. It does allocate $130.5 million to a "Democracy Fund" that supports projects of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director for the Project on Middle East Democracy, said in an interview that the elimination of money for the MENA fund was not a surprise.
"It confirms a lot of suspicions that this administration is kind of giving up on democracy promotion and pulling back from some of the transitions," he said. "You see that in the rhetoric and reflected in the numbers a little bit."
Lawmakers publicly questioned how the money would be used and managed, Bockenfeld said, and congressional staffers felt the State Department never adequately addressed concerns about the fund.
"It was sort of complex and not really explained in full to the Hill the way it needed to be, especially the kind of money they were asking for," he said. "A lot of people up there dismissed it as a State Department ‘slush fund.’"
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Spokespersons for ranking members on the House and Senate appropriations committees also did not respond to requests for comment.
Additionally, the omnibus bill authorizes about $1.5 billion in aid to the military-backed government in Egypt contingent on a new constitutional referendum and steps by leaders to govern democratically after elections. The referendum appeared to pass overwhelmingly this week but was marred by the arrests of journalists and opponents and accusations that the new constitution grants broad autonomy to the military, police, and judiciary.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, called the restrictions "the toughest conditions the Congress has imposed on aid to the Egyptian military" in a statement on Tuesday.
However, Bockenfeld said the likely resumption of aid demonstrates administration officials’ desire to "pull back from pushing on democracy and just [protect] the strategic interests," especially after they suspended hundreds of millions in military aid last October following a military crackdown on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
"These are really tough processes, but I don’t think [the administration has the] same type of enthusiasm they did a couple years ago," he said.
Peter Mandaville, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University and a former State Department official, also said in an interview that he did not feel like the administration adequately explained the MENA fund to lawmakers. Mandaville helped develop the idea of the fund while he was at the department.
While he said the administration deserved credit for proposing the MENA fund during a tough fiscal climate, officials did not emphasize that aid was conditioned on reforms. Lawmakers typically prefer quick fixes with smaller amounts of funding for elections and training political parties, he added.
"Genuine, lasting democracy comes from reform efforts that play out over five, 10 generational time spans," he said. "It’s difficult for us to build support for that kind of stuff."
Mandaville and Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid have proposed a multibillion dollar endowment fund that would enable the United States to work with other democracies and award aid to Middle East countries that pursue reforms like accountable judiciary and military institutions.
Bockenfeld said any significant attempts to promote democracy in the region will ultimately require a recognition that security-based alliances are inherently unstable—a lesson from the Arab Spring and its cycles of revolutions.
"To protect these security interests all of these countries need to be moving toward [democratic] reform," he said. "If we return to a pre-2011 mindset and just keep focusing on security interests, it misses that fundamental lesson."