Bridging Policy, Bridging Regions: America’s involvement in promoting democracy in the Middle East

Vin Weber, Mercury

Vin Weber, Mercury

Vin Weber is co-chairman and partner at Mercury. Mr. Weber served in the United States Congress from 1981-93, representing Minnesota’s 2nd District. He was a member of the Appropriations Committee and an elected member of the House Republican Leadership. Currently, he acts as strategist for the Republican Party and maintains strong bipartisan relationships across the legislative and executive branches of government. He is an advisor to senior officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill and has advised numerous presidential campaigns. He is based in Washington, DC, and was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago in the autumn of 2013, where he discussed the role of democracy promotion in US foreign policy.

You serve on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute. How do you view shared governance between the branches of government and foreign policy organizations?

Shared governance is important when thinking broadly about future plans, that is the end goal of what you are trying to accomplish and the roadmap to get there. I think it’s better to view the public policy process in much longer terms. It’s important to think about and understand the place of different entities in different stages and the roles they play. It’s correct to say that policy is the product of shared endeavors, but getting there involves thinking less about definitions and more about the flow of ideas and how roles shape outcomes.

During your time in office and after, you have been actively engaging policy issues on the ground in the Middle East. Armed with this “inside view” of both the legislative branch and the overseas arena, what do you think about your fellow members of the House and Senate – do they have a grasp of developments abroad?

Travel really is essential. Elected officials don’t travel as much as they used to, and I think you can blame both parties for that. Usually for political reasons – and it’s really too bad – one or both of the parties would accuse the other of using travel for questionable means. It used to be normal to travel when it suited policy objectives, but most members of the House and Senate have to think carefully about what the aims of overseas trips are. It’s easy for them to be undeservedly criticized.

I’m concerned about this because of what it means for them to do their jobs. The world is an integrated place. Terrorism knows no national borders, and neither do business and economic interactions. It’s hard for an elected official to do their job and not have an idea about the world and foreign policy.

How did you become involved with foreign policy in the Middle East?

My interest in the region began with Israel. My first entry into politics came when I worked for Rudy Boschwitz, the first Jewish Senator from Minnesota and the first Holocaust survivor to be elected to the Senate. From there, my engagement with policy and the Middle East snowballed. As I became more and more involved with Israel-relevant topics, I realized that knowing more about the neighboring states and the region was helpful.

After leaving Congress, I became Chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in January of 2001. It was an auspicious time for NED – the tail end of the “Third Wave” in Eastern Europe had more or less finished a long process of democratization that NED was involved with from the beginning of the 1990s. NED was planning strategically for the future while maintaining current aims.

All this quickly changed, however. I was chairman for a little over nine months before 9/11 took place, which pushed the NED to the front of discussions on democratization in the Arab world. President Bush wanted to increase NED’s funding with the purpose of developing programs in Arab countries, so my exposure to the region deepened as we initiated new projects and partnerships with grantees in different countries.

Can you comment on accusations that some make about NED meddling in foreign countries?

At the outset, NED was controversial, on both the left and the right. Republicans were concerned about the expenditures associated with a mission that had multiple, complex goals. Success for democratic reform is difficult to envision in any context, and they weren’t keen on spending money in a period of budget strain.

The left was concerned with the role of America in the wider international community. They thought NED would be an agent of corporate imperialism and brought up cases like United Fruit in Nicaragua. They were critical of the relationship between government and what they called “exploitative businesses” that would take advantage of NED’s mission as a means to turn a profit. The overwhelming number of responsible members of the business community ultimately displayed the weakness of this argument, as NED’s passing proved.

This remains an active concern, however. Situations that empowered irresponsible practices are largely on their way out, but some bad examples persist. Ultimately NED contributes to corporate social responsibility by building democratic organizations’ capacity and promoting free enterprise. So the issues opponents objected to during debates on the creation of NED actually led to the means to fight those irresponsible practices.

How has your involvement with NED shaped your perception on democracy?

This is a challenging question, and I have an ambiguous approach. I’m aware that democracy won’t be the same everywhere, and strive to be sensitive to cultural differences. What democracy means does encompass some universal human values and the principle of self-government. I feel strongly about the respect for human rights and that at the same time you have to respect political rights. Having one without the other is an inconsistency.

NED is cognizant of this and works with different organizations everywhere, but has different abilities to work around the world. In Eastern Europe it was easier—many groups were eager to move out of the politics of the Cold War era and build something new with NED’s partnership, like the Czechs and the Poles. The Middle East has proven more difficult.

Do Middle Eastern states simply need to adopt an American model?

In some places it’s impossible to promote democratic practices, like in Cuba, Iran, or North Korea. The next best option is to engage the diaspora communities and empower them to take the tools necessary to make significant changes to their home country. Some countries, like Egypt, are more in the middle area between the two extremes of easy to work with and the Irans, Cubas or North Koreas. There was some opening for democratic reform during the Mubarak era, but NED had an uneasy existence with the Mubarak regime. On occasion we were notified that NED grantees were arrested for their work.

It’s been a long learning curve since 9/11, and much evaluation about what NED hoped to achieve, not just in the Middle East but worldwide, took place after what happened in Washington and New York. NED was hoping the countries of the Middle East would embrace democracy and free enterprise, but people in the Middle East don’t want to be like Americans.

They want freedoms and rights just like Americans, but as In Support of Arab Democracy discusses, a report I co-authored with Madeline Albright for the Council on Foreign Relations, democracy promotion is the best means to achieve stability in the region. This means adaptation of healthy democratic practices that NED embodies, but it won’t solve problems of violence or terrorism that trouble the political landscape. More open political environments will likely weaken extremist ideologies though, which is beneficial to everyone regardless of the way democracy is implemented.

Feature photo: cc/(Ahmed Abd El-fatah)'
Paul Berry
Paul Berry is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of of Public Policy. He is interested in foreign policy.

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