As a rule, omnibus spending bills are a bad idea. (Congressman can use them to stick in a lot of useless stuff.) Another rule of thumb: More often than not, U.S. policy toward the few success stories in the Middle East has been indifference. And finally, for the most part, politicians have behaved irresponsibly of late with regard to foreign aid, falsely suggesting it’s a significant drain on the taxpayers and recommending that we “zero out” what aid we do give. But there are exceptions to every trend and rule.
A case in point is the recently passed and signed omnibus spending bill. It included, thanks to the effort of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), some smart policy adjustments with regard to Northern Africa.
As I have written before, the Maghreb holds the promise of peaceful change (as we’ve seen in Morocco and, for the most part, in Tunisia) but also violence and the toxic mix of human and drug trafficking, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the ongoing conflict over the Western Sahara between Morocco and the violent separatist movement, the Polisario Front, which keeps thousands of refugees in camps in Algeria. The United States has given mostly lip service to a Moroccan proposal for autonomy in the Western Sahara, but thanks to Diaz-Balart, some useful language was inserted into the omnibus bill.
For one thing, the omnibus includes language urging the State Department to make a priority of a negotiated settlement for the Western Sahara. (Both the Bush and Clinton administrations as well as the United Nations have recognized Morocco’s proposed settlement as the most responsible, but little has been done to effectuate an agreement.)
More important, the foreign aid given to Morocco, according to new language in the omnibus, can now be used in all “regions and territories administered by Morocco,” including the southern, developing region of the Sahara controlled by Morocco. This affords Morocco the ability to direct funds to promoting civil society, education, legal reform, democracy building and assistance with the training politicians and educating local officials, who under the newly ratified constitution will have increased power and responsibilities which they, frankly, are not presently equipped to handle.
This is a signal that the United States is concerned with the troubling developments in that region and is willing to show some staying power. The expectation is now that European countries, which have hung back waiting for Washington to act, will also step forward with economic, political and technical assistance.
It’s noteworthy that what is a huge amount for a country like Morocco is a pittance as a percentage of the federal budget. In fiscal year 2011, the total aid given to Morocco was less than $115 million, plus $8-10 million in military assistance. The new omnibus language will allow next year’s funds and those funds in the pipeline to be used in some of the poorest, most underdeveloped areas of the country, which also happens to be a brewing regional security threat.
We routinely ding politicians and elected officials for indifference and inattention to democracy-building in the Middle East. So when Congress (or at least one informed congressman) gets it right, we should give ample credit.