Pro-Israel Congressional Spokesmen Rethinking Democratization

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the pro-Israel chairman of the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, scheduled a hearing today to discuss the annual request for military and economic aid to Egypt, and those attending came away with the impression that the top Zionists of the subcommittee were changing their minds about the usefulness of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

For the last several decades, the US has supported aid to Egypt as a way to promote democratization of its civil institutions. It has recently persuaded the Egyptians that aid to these institutions need not receive prior governmental approval. It has funded reforms in education and in the judiciary as important means of opening up the democratic process. US aid has resulted in 99% of Egypt’s villages receiving electricity. Mortality rates have significantly declined, thanks to cleaner water. Telephones have multiplied.

However, Natan Sharansky’s vision, which President Bush had praised sky-high only last year – that peace with Israel could be reached only by democratizing Middle East countries – may be headed to oblivion, as the effects of the free and democratic election in Palestine in January sets in. No longer are congressional representatives such as Shelley Berkley (D-NV) and Gary Ackerman (D-NY) enthralled by the way the democratic process is working in the Middle East. They now think that perhaps it’s better to keep the old guard, such as Hosni Mubarak, in power after all.

“Egypt must not fail,” Ackerman was heard to say.

“I’m beginning to think that democracy has no more of a chance in the Middle East than a man on the moon,” Berkley dully commented. Last year she was one of those in Congress (with Tom Lantos – D-CA) who led a campaign to eliminate altogether military aid in favor of economic aid.

The comments may have caught Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs C. David Welch, one of the key witnesses, off guard. His remarks were clearly designed to support strongly the request for continued aid to Egypt, pointing out the ways in which the aid “investment” has been paid back in diplomatic and strategic returns. Egypt has facilitated the shipment of military supply ships to Iraq through the Suez Canal, it has approved the fly-over of thousands of airplanes to the war zones in Iraq and elsewhere, and has voted appropriately on hundreds of resolutions in international organizations.

True, there have been setbacks. The presidential election campaign was messier than the US would have wanted, and Hosni Mubarak locked up some key political agitators, such as Ayman Nour, and forcefully suppressed pro-democratic activists. Still, Egypt remains the “cornerstone” of US policy in the Middle East, and has been since the Camp David Accords were signed 27 years ago.

Congressmen did complain that the recent GAO report on security assistance aid to Egypt showed that neither the US Department of Defense nor the Department of State had any real way of effectively measuring the effectiveness to US foreign policy and security goals of the billions of dollars given by the American people to the Egyptian military over the years. “How do you know whether it is modernized?” asked Ackerman. And Ros-Lehtinen commented scornfully on the low standards of accountability that apply when it comes to Egyptian aid.

The hearing was cut short early as important votes in Congress had to be attended.

There was no time to hear witnesses from private organizations, who may be expected to draw attention to some of the more recent lapses in Egypt’s progress toward democracy.

Still, Egyptian organizations, unlike their Israeli counterparts, are held to extraordinary terms of fiscal accountability. In fact, Israel is not required to submit any report longer than a single page on the vast sums of money given every year. Questions asked about Israeli aid are never as harsh as those asked about aid to any Arab country. Will the GAO report on security assistance to Israel, which should be produced in due course, reveal any criticism of how American aid is spent?

Terry Walz is general manager of the Council for the National Interest. CNI is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization advocating a new direction for U.S. Middle East policy. As CNI Founding Chairman Paul Findley notes, CNI is “motivated by the national interest of our country in Middle East policy… CNI provides a way for all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation or national origin, to speak out in an effective way. Those who participate can help advance the national interest in the Middle East and at the same time help repair the damage being done to our political institutions by the over-zealous tactics of Israel’s lobby.”

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