While President Bush vows to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, his administration has been scaling back funding for the main organizations trying to carry out his vision by building democratic institutions such as political parties and civil society groups.
The administration has included limited new money for traditional democracy promotion in budget requests to Congress. Some organizations face funding cutoffs this month, while others struggle to stretch resources through the summer. The shortfall threatens projects that teach Iraqis how to create and sustain political parties, think tanks, human rights groups, independent media outlets, trade unions and other elements of democratic society.
The shift in funding priorities comes as security costs are eating up an enormous share of U.S. funds for Iraq and the administration has already ratcheted back ambitions for reconstructing the country's battered infrastructure. While acknowledging that they are investing less in party-building and other such activities, administration officials argue that bringing more order and helping Iraqis run effective ministries contribute to democracy as well.
Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an advocacy group that hosted a Bush speech last week, called the situation "a travesty" and said she is "appalled" that more is not being done. "This is the time to show that democracy promotion is more than holding an election. If the U.S. can't see fit to fund follow-up democracy promotion at this time," then it is making a mistake, she said.
"The commitment to what the president of the United States will say every single day of the week is his number one priority in Iraq, when it's translated into action, looks very tiny," said Les Campbell, who runs programs in the Middle East for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, known as NDI.
NDI and its sister, the International Republican Institute (IRI), will see their grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development dry up at the end of this month, according to a government document, leaving them only special funds earmarked by Congress last year. Similarly, the U.S. Institute of Peace has had its funding for Iraq democracy promotion cut by 60 percent. And the National Endowment for Democracy expects to run out of money for Iraqi programs by September.
Shifted to security training
"Money keeps getting transferred away to security training. Democracy's one of the things that's been transferred," said Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's project on democracy and the rule of law. "Without that, all the other stuff looks like just background work."
Among the projects facing closure is the Iraq Civil Society and Media Program, funded by USAID and run by America's Development Foundation and the International Research and Exchanges Board. The program has established four civil society resource centers around the country, conducted hundreds of workshops and forums, and trained thousands of government officials in transparency and accountability. It also helped Iraqis set up the National Iraqi News Agency, the first independent news agency in the Arab world.
The program was supposed to run at least through June 2007 but without $15 million more, it will have to close this summer.
Officials at the White House, the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget and USAID were contacted for comment in recent days, but none would speak on the record. In response to a request for comment, USAID sent promotional documents hailing past accomplishments in Iraq, such as sponsoring town hall meetings, training election monitors, and distributing pamphlets, posters and publications explaining voting and the new constitution.
The president's supplemental Iraq spending request includes just $10 million for democracy promotion, and his proposed budget for fiscal 2007 asks for $63 million, a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars spent each year on Iraq. But officials argue that other funds in effect further the same goal. For instance, the administration targeted $254 million for enhancing the rule of law by creating a fair judiciary and a humane prison system.
For Bush, developing democracy in Iraq has become perhaps the signature of his presidency, and he takes special pride in the three elections held since sovereignty was transferred by U.S. authorities. Veterans of past democracy-building efforts, however, have complained that having elections is not enough -- an argument the president has embraced lately, both in his speeches and in his newly released National Security Strategy.
"Elections start the process. They're not the end of the process," Bush told Freedom House last week. "And one of the reasons I respect the Freedom House is because you understand that you follow elections with institution-building and the creation of civil society."
Money flowed to such programs in the beginning of the Iraq enterprise. The National Endowment for Democracy, which supported projects in the Kurdish north of Iraq even before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, found itself soon after Baghdad fell with $25 million to expand elsewhere in the country and eventually received a total of $71 million. It distributed some to the IRI and the NDI and some to groups such as the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights in Babylon and the Organization for a Model Iraqi Society.
Last month the endowment received the final $3 million owed on past allocations, with no further funding identified. "It does feel like everybody's getting squeezed in this area," said Barbara E. Haig, the endowment's vice president. "There probably is a commitment to these programs in principle. I don't know how much commitment there is in specificity."
The IRI and the NDI, which are affiliated with the two U.S. political parties, will lose USAID financing April 30. The two party institutes led a coalition to educate Iraqis before last year's elections. An evaluation commissioned by USAID in December called it "essential" that the program "be continued for at least another 24 months."
The party institutes will be able to continue some programs for now only because of a special earmark inserted into legislation last year with $56 million for the two groups. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) sponsored the earmark with support from Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) after it appeared that NDI and IRI would run out of money last year.
"The solution to Iraq lies in the political process, and it's reckless for the White House to cut funds to strengthen democracy in Iraq at this time," Kennedy said yesterday.
At current spending rates, the earmark will run out this year. After that, the Bush administration has included just $15 million for the two party institutes as part of the $63 million for Iraqi democracy in next year's budget, which would require most programs to be cut.
The U.S. Institute of Peace faces similar cutbacks to its program. "It's just vital," said Daniel P. Serwer, an institute vice president. All the democracy programs in Iraq combined, he noted, cost less than one day of the U.S. military mission. "Am I absolutely sure that we will shorten the deployment time of American troops enough to justify the cost of the program? Yes," he said.