(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 includes a second attempt to create an “Arab spring” support fund, after a previous bid ran into hurdles on Capitol Hill.
As part of a $47.8 billion request for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budget, the administration called Wednesday for around $580 million for a “Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Incentive Fund.”
“The primary purpose of the Fund is to advance democratic, institutional, and economic reform by MENA governments and their people,” the budget proposal said.
“Secondly, this Fund will also allow us to respond to emerging opportunities to support early transitions so that nascent reforms can continue. Our response in 2011 and 2012 to unfolding events demonstrated the need for funding in critical early periods.”
Last year the administration asked for $770 million for an envisaged new fund to promote Arab reforms, characterizing it as a high priority issue for President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In the House of Representatives, however, it faced opposition in the Appropriations Committee. Rather than approve the administration’s request, the committee’s State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill allocated $200 million for a Mideast response fund, including $25 million for military aid and $175 million for economic assistance (of which $50 million was earmarked for Jordan alone.)
The House bill also made a new allocation of $2.8 million for the “promotion of democracy,” with provisos including one saying those funds must also be “made available to support freedom of religion, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.”
In the Senate, however, the administration’s request found support, with then Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry telling Clinton, “I fully share your perspective and the goals of the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund to make sure that we have the tools and the flexibility needed to act proactively and to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.”
In line with that support the Senate Appropriations Committee included the funding in its bill, and upped the amount to $1 billion. But it did not make it into the temporary federal government funding measure signed by Obama last September.
In its new budget proposal document, the administration said the MENA Incentive Fund money “will not be allocated at the outset to any specific countries.”
But the document does – as the administration did last year – identify 11 likely targets, recalling that one of its strategic goals for the period ending September 2013 was to “support continued progress toward or lay the foundations for transitions to accountable electoral democracies in 11 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that respect civil and political liberties and human rights.”
Those countries include some that have undergone transitions, but where deep uncertainties remain about their current direction and future prospects, such as Egypt and Libya; as well as the hard cases of Syria and Iran – the former torn by civil conflict, the latter as resistant as ever to citizens’ demands for reform and U.S. attempts to engage.
The others are Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and the Palestinian territories.
In the absence of such a fund, the document said, its response to the “Arab spring” thus far has involved finding funding in existing FY2011 and FY2012 budgets, reallocating more than $1.5 billion from bilateral programs and other sources, “at great opportunity cost.”
“This is not the best approach for long-term, strategic investments to support ongoing transitions,” it argued.
At a background briefing Wednesday, a senior State Department official said the administration was “making the argument again” for a special fund, after having spent “most of our money out of existing resources responding to various crises” in the region.
“It’s even more important now because the demands on our budget on things like Syria really – we don’t want that to crowd out what we need to be focused on over the long term.”
The official described the envisaged fund as a “contingency” one, indicating that the administration did not yet know exactly where the funds would be best needed.
“At the end of the day, a lot of this is going to be driven by where we think we can make the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reform, what countries are interested in working with us. And we don’t know yet where that’s going to be,” the official said.
“So we feel keeping it open and having it be more of a contingency that would allow us to work with governments is the right way to do it.”
Separately, the budget request includes bilateral military and economic assistance for many of the same 11 countries seen as likely beneficiaries under the new MENA Incentive Fund.
The Foreign Military Financing (FMF) section of the request includes funding for Egypt ($1.3 billion), Jordan ($300 million) and Lebanon ($75 million), while Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen would all benefit from International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs.
Under the Economic Support Fund section of the budget proposal, $370 million is requested for the Palestinian territories, $360 million for Jordan, $250 million for Egypt, $70 million for Lebanon, $45 million for Yemen and $30 million for Tunisia.
Justifying the $250 million for Egypt, the administration said the funding would “continue our longstanding commitment to Egypt by providing critical assistance as the country continues its historic democratic transition.”
“U.S. assistance programs will seek to support a successful transition to democracy while assisting the Egyptian Government to address obstacles to sustainable economic growth and recovery,” it added.
Secretary of State Kerry is scheduled to testify on the proposed budget before the House Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations next Wednesday.