Conversations: Tom Melia

May 31, 2011

Tom Melia has worked for a quarter-century promoting democracy, mostly with nongovernmental organizations. He was a senior official at Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, before being named last year as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

His office walls are lined with maps of the tough areas he covers — Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Russia. There are also family photos; in between trips to places like Belarus and Ukraine, he tries to catch his 7-year-old son’s Little League games.

Q: You’ve been doing democracy promotion for 25 years or so, right? How did you get into this?

A: I was working for [New York Sen.] Pat Moynihan in the 1980s when the idea of the National Endowment for Democracy was bouncing around and eventually came to fruition. And I got interested in this kind of nongovernmental kind of international relations.

The idea that political parties and civic groups could cross borders, help one another out to care about what goes on in other countries . . .

You were at the National Democratic Institute for a number of years. I noticed from 1993 to 1996 you were doing their Middle East projects. At that time, did you glimpse the possibility of this tide of pro-democracy movements?

Yes, because we had just spent several busy years in Eastern Europe. So I was fully persuaded that change was possible in the most unlikely places.

The projects that you did back then, did they bear fruit?

Yeah. I first went to Egypt in the autumn of 1995. . . . We had translated into Arabic a manual on how domestic election-monitoring efforts had been organized in countries all over the world . . . . I would hand over copies of this Arabic-language manual [to journalists, activists, political parties], and say, ‘This is the kind of thing you could do maybe in five years, for the next elections.’ . . .

So the last meeting I had on my way to the airport was at the Ibn Khaldun Center [for Development Studies] . . . [Its director] grabs me at the door and says, ‘Come on in, they’re waiting for you’ and pulls me into a conference room. And half the people I’d met in the previous three days were in this conference room. . . . And they all had the manuals out on the table. He said, ‘We’re going to do this, for next month’s election.’

I said, ‘No, you don’t understand — this takes time and organizing and money.’ . . . He said, ‘Yeah, we understand all that stuff. It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ And I got back to Washington and I went to the National Endowment for Democracy and got an emergency grant of $25,000 to be wired. . . .

They created the first independent report about the conduct of elections in Egypt. And so, since then, in every election — presidential or parliamentary or local — there have been independent election monitors in Egypt.

In 2006, you wrote a paper on how to reform the “democracy bureaucracy” and said there was too little strategic thinking, too much micromanagement. Now that you’re in government, is that still true?

There are a lot of forces that conspire against strategic thinking and that encourage micromanagement. . . . Stuff happens in the world that’s unexpected, that confounds one’s strategies, upsets assumptions. And the press of daily events in our lives here — what foreign governments say or do, what the press brings to us and what the Congress demands of us — crowds out, very often, strategic vision. . . . I appreciate the difficulty of overcoming those problems I described in that article. And there are people here who are doing that and capable of it and articulating bigger visions. . . .

The micromanagement comes for all the right reasons — stewardship of public money — but it leads to slowing down decision-making and grantmaking.

How do you encourage democracy in a place like Afghanistan?

Among the things that have struck me in coming into this job is how large a role the U.S. military and military issues play in the work of the State Department and in democracy discussions. And I’ve been impressed by the understanding and commitment by senior military officials who get it, who understand how important it is to strengthen democratic fundamentals and respect for human rights in our encounters in the world.

In places like Afghanistan, like Iraq and to some extent Pakistan, our military partnerships with governments and their security services provide a huge opportunity and many challenges in building democratic habits.

[Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy] Mike Posner and I spent a day at Centcom (U.S. Central Command) a month ago, in Tampa, and found we don’t agree with all the generals we met down there on every issue of analysis or policy, but it’s a real conversation, based on shared values.

— Mary Beth Sheridan

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