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U.S.: Is Bush Abandoning Democracy Building In Iraq?

Can democracy be built if security is not yet assured? (epa) One of the U.S. administration's central arguments for instigating "regime change" in Iraq was that the country could be transformed into a beacon of democracy that would serve as model for the Middle East. U.S. President George W. Bush continues to make the case that despite setbacks and deaths, the goal of turning Iraq into a functioning democracy remains his long-term priority. But civil-society groups that have been working to build institutions in Iraq to make this goal a reality say their funds are now being dramatically cut back.

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Bush rarely misses an opportunity to talk of the benefits of a democratic Iraq as he tours the United States in his effort to restore Americans' confidence in his war policy.

"Freedom can change troubled parts in the world into peaceful parts of the world," he told an audience on April 6 in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Is it worth it in Iraq? You bet it is. It's worth it to protect ourselves in the short run, but it's necessary and worth it to lay the foundation of peace for generations to come."

Yet what is democracy in Iraq worth to Bush? That is the question being asked now that the White House has asked Congress to approve significant cuts in funding for organizations that are central to that effort.

"The Washington Post" reported that under the proposals, two of those organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, would lose their government funding for Iraq projects at the end of this month. And the U.S. Institute for Peace would have its democracy-promotion funds for Iraq cut by 60 percent.

Other projects that face closure include the Iraq Civil Society and Media Program, funded by U.S. Agency for International Development, which has been training journalists and thousands of government officials in transparency and accountability.

'Security Before Democracy'

RFE/RL asked James Phillips if such cuts are consistent with Bush's stated desire to bring democracy to Iraq. Phillips -- a research fellow in Middle East affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington -- responded that unfortunately, spending on security has to come first.
"If the administration didn't do its utmost to provide security, then it would be criticized for not doing it." -- Phillips

"I think the programs, in the long run, are helpful in guiding Iraqis toward stable democracy," Phillips said. "Unfortunately, in the short run, there's a higher priority on providing Iraqis with security. And much of the funds that may have been available before for these programs were diverted, I think, to protect Iraqis. And I think that's logical because you can't practice democracy if personal security is perpetually at risk."

Phillips said he expects the administration will restore funding to democracy-building groups as soon as it can afford to do so. In the meantime, he said, the United States can hardly be expected to cut back on security in the midst of a bloody insurgency and sectarian strife.

"If the administration didn't do its utmost to provide security, then it would be criticized for not doing it," he said. "I think this is a budget consideration rather than a change in policy regarding democracy."

'Admission Of Failure'

Leon Fuerth sees the budget cuts entirely differently. Fuerth served as the national security adviser for Vice President Al Gore during the 1990s, in the administration of President Bill Clinton. Fuerth says reducing funding for democracy building is indicative of a foreign policy in trouble.
"It is a huge indicator of how badly the administration's expectations and execution have gone." -- Fuerth

"Obviously it is beyond bad and deep into tragic," he said. "It is a huge indicator of how badly the administration's expectations and execution have gone. That is testimony to what the insurgency apparently is doing. It is costing us so much money to deal with [it] that we have got to tear down the thing that the president promised to do, which is to help construct a democracy in that country."

Fuerth said he agrees with Phillips that Iraqis can hardly be expected to take active roles in democracy if they fear for their lives. But he said there's no reason to believe that securing the peace in Iraq and building democratic institutions there cannot be done simultaneously.

"In democracy building, what are you trying to do? It's not like building an oil pipeline, it is educating people, it is creating and infrastructure that supports civil society, it is inculcating values of tolerance and debate, it is helping people learn how to write laws, it is helping people learn how to compromise," Fuerth said.

Fuerth said these budget cuts can be interpreted only as new admission of failure. First, he says, Bush had to face the reality that Saddam Hussein had no illegal weapons. Now, he says, Bush is indirectly acknowledging that if the Iraqis want democracy, they'll have to look elsewhere for help.

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