Yesterday evening I participated in a panel at GMU on "Political and Economic Change in the Middle East." Each panelist had a few minutes for comments followed by open Q&A. My initial comments are below the fold.
I would like to highlight two points that I hope we can discuss further during the Q&A.
First, what is happening in the Middle East is an indictment of U.S. 'nation building' and more specifically the idea that social change toward freedom must be initiated by outsiders. Consider that the U.S has now been in Afghanistan for nearly 10 years and have been unable to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of Afghan citizens. In Egypt it was a matter of weeks between the initial indigenous uprising and Mubarek’s resignation.
The spontaneous and unexpected events in Egypt, and the Middle East more broadly, highlight the flaws in the planning mentality that underpins most, if not all, U.S. foreign interventions. This view holds that (1) certain societies are unable to move towards freedom without outside assistance and (2) that the complex array of institutions that underpin societies are the result of some ‘grand plan’ which can be engineered by experts.
Of course there is no way of knowing whether the uprisings in the Middle East will ultimately result in increased freedom. What we do know is that this outcome is at least a possibility, as is liberation and change from within.
At a minimum, the events in the Middle East should cause increased humility in the ongoing interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other potential future foreign interventions. We should recognize that the U.S. is not very good at predicting or facilitating social change abroad. In addition to the ongoing issues in Afghanistan and Iraq, consider that U.S. intelligence agencies, arguably the best in the world, were unable to foresee the events in the Middle East. What better evidence that social change can not only occur from within, but that it is an enormously complex process that cannot possibly be understood by the best and brightest experts whose sole job it is to understand these things?
I am skeptical that these lessons will be learned by policymakers any time soon. Even in the wake of these indigenous spontaneous revolutions, the planning mentality continues as illustrated by the Obama administration’s call for an "orderly transition to democracy” in Egypt, implying that such change is a neat and linear process.
The second point that I would like to raise is that the events in Egypt, and the Middle East more broadly, provide an excellent opportunity to reconsider the longtime U.S. practice of giving foreign aid to the world’s worst dictators.
Egypt has received over $25 billion in U.S. development assistance, and over $40 billion in U.S. military assistance, since Mubarek assumed power in 1981. President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget requested $1.5bn in aid for Egypt, with $1.3bn of that total allocated toward the military. Moving beyond Egypt, a recent article in Fortune noted that from 2007 to 2010 the U.S. Defense Department requested that Congress approve arms packages to Middle Eastern countries totaling $180 billion. Over $100 billion of this has been under the Obama administration. We should recognize and critically discuss the tension between the U.S. being a supposed champion of peace and freedom while simultaneously being the world’s lord of war.
These are not the only cases of the U.S. providing assistance to the world’s worst governments. Every year Parade magazine compiles a list of the “World’s Worst Dictators.” The U.S. has given some form of aid to each of the countries on the list at some point in time. Keep in mind that the leaders of these countries are the worst of the worst. These are people who are willing to maim, rape, and murder innocent adults and children in order to maintain their hold on power.
One justification for giving aid to these countries is that it allows the U.S. to achieve broader strategic goals associated with its national interest. If this is true, then the U.S. government should drop the rhetoric of “democracy,” “self-determination” and “human rights.” Instead, in the name of transparency, a hallmark of liberal democracy which the U.S. claims to represent and uphold, the U.S. government should simply admit that it is paying off the most repugnant leaders in the world to further its national interests, despite the significant costs that this imposes on ordinary citizens who must live under these governments. Life is about trade-offs and we might as well be honest about them instead of pretending we can have our freedom-promoting cake and eat it too.
Another common justification is that the provision of aid is necessary in order to reform the poorly-performing governments in these countries. In theory, if effective government reforms are undertaken with the assistance of aid, this will result in development and other benefits for citizens. However, this justification for aid has problems. The aid community works through the governments in the recipient countries to design and implement reforms. This means that the source of the problem—the predatory state—is tasked with playing a central role in solving the problem of which its very existence is the cause. The result is the well-known pitfalls of aid such as increased corruption and issues of aid effectiveness. The bigger question we need to ask ourselves is why we would expect the world’s most brutal dictators to suddenly act in the public interest by adopting reforms which ultimately reduce their power?
Although there has been focus on ‘good governance’ by those in the international aid community, we still lack a good grasp of how to go about getting effective constraints on the grabbing hand of the state where they do not exist. One thing we do know is that absent these constraints, funneling millions, if not billions, of dollars of aid into these countries will not only fail to achieve increased freedom, but will cause significant harms to innocent people in the process.