WASHINGTON – 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 No. 1 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 (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.
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.
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.