A basic tenet of the U.S. war against terrorism under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been the need to "drain the swamp" — to eliminate the conditions that drive young Muslims toward extremism. Now, in much of the Arab world, the inhabitants of the swamp have pitched in courageously to drain it themselves. Are we ready to help?
The Obama administration says yes, but in some cases, it's been slow to take action. And most members of Congress say yes too, but they're caught up in a frenzy of budget cutting that's likely to reduce the money available for the job.
The first step, of course, is helping democratic revolutions succeed. After some initial hesitation, President Obama pronounced himself fully on the side of the demonstrators in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. Critics have complained that the administration could have done more; administration officials promise that, once the dust settles, we'll learn that they did more than was publicly known. For example, one official suggested to me, the administration and allied governments have tried through back channels to persuade Libya's air force to ignore orders to fire on demonstrators.
But once a dictator has been toppled, there's much more work to be done. In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, there are constitutions to write or revise, elections to be organized and monitored, voters to be registered.
In past years, some grass-roots democratic groups in the Arab world may have hesitated to accept American aid because they, or their potential voters, saw the United States as an enemy, not a friend.
"I don't think there's a problem now," said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. "There's great pride in all of these places that these protest movements were indigenous."
Luckily, the United States already has programs available to provide the kind of advice and training that Arab democrats may want — a legacy, in part, of the George W. Bush administration, but one the Obama administration has continued.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the foreign aid agency, are already designing a proposal for a package of "transition assistance" to newly democratic countries in the area. But that's likely to be a slow process. Tunisia, for example, overthrew its dictatorship more than a month ago, but it has yet to receive any new help from USAID.
More promising vehicles, in the short term, are the nimbler nongovernment organizations like Wollack's, which can launch small projects quickly. His National Democratic Institute, sponsored by the Democratic Party and funded by a combination of U.S. government and private donations, has sent an expert to Yemen to serve as an unofficial conduit between the government and opposition leaders. The International Republican Institute, the GOP counterpart, has already launched a public opinion poll in Egypt to show budding politicians what their potential voters think.
Once elections are held and new governments installed, there will still be work to do to make sure the fledgling democracies succeed. One crucial aspect will be economic aid to help improve the lives of millions of people who live in poverty even as their elites — and neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia — live in opulence.
Why is this important? Democracies that fail to deliver material progress don't always stay democratic. And that's where Congress comes in. The spending bill for the rest of this year that the Republican-led House passed last week cuts foreign economic aid by about 17% worldwide; it would cut the National Endowment for Democracy, the organization that funds those nimble democracy institutes, by 6%. And House Republicans have made it clear that they plan further cuts next year; some firebrands have even proposed eliminating foreign aid entirely, or eliminating it for every country except Israel.
In the short run, the Senate — and common sense — is likely to save U.S. democracy promotion from being gutted. "We're the flavor of the month," an executive at one of the institutes (not Wollack's) told me wryly. "Everybody's offering us money." But over the long run, if foreign aid is slashed overall, even the little democracy-promotion agencies will feel the squeeze.
Here's a modest proposal: The administration and Congress should choose a country to turn into a real success story, and make sure it gets all the help it needs.
For years, one of the problems of promoting democracy in the Arab world has been the shortage of positive models for others to follow. It's still a problem today: As unelected kings and presidents look at the tumult around them, do they see any examples of smooth, successful transitions they might be tempted to emulate? Or will they see chaos, and conclude that repression is still the better course?