Friday, April 07, 2006

A Tourniquet on Democracy

On March 15, I posted about what I saw as President Bush's unwillingness to put U.S. taxpayer money where his mouth is. Despite frequent calls to religious and non-religious groups on the ennobling value of self-sacrifice and service to others, Bush drastically cut funding both in 2003 and again in 2006 for AmeriCorps, an organization dedicated to this principle with a proven track record of success. Now he is at it again.

In the heady aftermath of his re-election, the President chided those who continued to complain his Administration has misrepresented the reasons for going to war in Iraq. "We had an accountability moment and that's called the 2004 elections," he told the Washington Post. Bush held his victory was a ratification of his Iraq policy and that there was no reason to hold any Administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath. The U.S. had not gone to Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein so much as it had to start a birth of freedom in the Middle East.

A few weeks later, in his second Inaugural Address, Bush seized upon this concept and globalized it into his second term foreign policy vision. "[It] is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he intoned.

Yet Iraq remains the proving ground for that vision and so far it has failed to deliver the promised results. Internal religious and ethnic tensions, a growing insurgency, and an influx of foreign terrorist fighters are all legitimate reasons that have significantly contributed to the failure. However, the President has increasingly begun to ignore the ongoing, long-term support and investment necessary by this country to initiate and foster democratic institutions and infrastructures in Iraq.

As the Iraqis continue hovering on the brink of continuing chaos and increasingly inevitable civil war, the Bush Administration is scaling back funding for the main organizations trying to carry out the President's vision to spread democracy there.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's project on Democracy and the Rule of Law as well as the Iraq Civil Society and Media Program, funded by USAID and run by America's Development Foundation and the International Research and Exchanges Board, are two of the ventures that threaten to dry up and blow away in light of funding cuts. Other programs run by Freedom House and the U.S. Institute of Peace face similar fates.

Likewise, entire organizations – including the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and its sister International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights in Babylon, and the Organization for a Model Iraqi Society – have or will run out of funds this year and face collapse. They have provided integral services, conducting hundreds of workshops and forums, training thousands of government officials in transparency and accountability, and helping establish a free and independent press.

President Bush has often been fond on pointing to free and open elections in Iraq as critical milestones in the spread of democracy there. He has a valid point in doing so. Yet he has recently begun to see the situation in broader terms. "Elections start the process. They're not the end of the process," he said in a speech to Freedom House last week. "And one of the reasons I respect [your organization] is because you understand that you follow elections with institution-building and the creation of civil society."

The respect was not accompanied by money. The President's 2006 supplemental Iraq spending request includes just $10 million for democracy promotion. His proposed budget for entire fiscal 2007 asks for a mere $63 million.

As far back as February of 2005, Fareed Zakaria was writing in Newsweek that "Elections Are Not Democracy." He prophesied then that without "a major change in course, Iraq is on track to become another corrupt, oil-rich quasi-democracy, like Russia and Nigeria." At that time, the U.S. was pumping billions of dollars into Iraq – not only for military expenditures but building infrastructure as well. What happened that turned the President into such a penny-pincher?

Per Zakaria, the U.S. was not getting much bang for its buck. However, he placed the blame not on Iraqi ingratitude or inability for self-government but rather shortsightedness and ineptitude on how the U.S. invested its funds. He turned to Isam al Khafaji, who briefly worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority and now runs Iraq Revenue Watch for the Open Society Institute, to explain.

"Most of the money [was] being spent for reasons of political patronage, not creating the basis for a real economy." Khafaji found that funds were spent on Americans, no matter what the cost, with the rest going to favored Iraqis. "We have studied this and I can say with certainty that not a single Iraqi contractor has received his contract through a bidding process that was open and transparent," he said.

It is easy to comprehend President Bush's knee-jerk reaction to drastically cut programs for Iraq that do not seem to be working. When you are hemorrhaging, the intuitive reaction is to grab the biggest rag you can find and start sopping up the blood. The problem is that this does not stop the source of the bleeding. A tourniquet, carefully applied to the right pressure point(s), is necessary for that.

Where Iraq is concerned, the President is the Commander-in-Chief and bears the ultimate responsibility for success or failure there. His critics would probably like the tourniquet around his neck and head on that basis. My suggestion would be one for his lips that will match the one he has placed on his wallet. That should keep him from communicating any more visions and making any more promises for which he lacks the funds and foresight to make happen.

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