From the outset of his administration, President Barack Obama has emphasized basic respect for and understanding of the Middle East, as well as a desire to establish a new relationship with the region.  In his January 2009 inaugural address, he declared to the Muslim world that the U.S. seeks “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” with this phrase becoming a recurring theme in later speeches, including his address to the Turkish parliament in April 2009. In his first television interview as president, Obama spoke with Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiyya about the need to restore “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.” 

But many critics noted the conspicuous absence of any explicit mention of the word “democracy” in administration speeches and statements during its first few months.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke often of the “three D’s” of U.S. engagement with the world – defense, diplomacy, and development – leaving many to ask where the fourth “D,” democracy, would fit into the new administration’s plans.  Secretary Clinton took a first step toward correcting this when meeting with a group of Egyptian democracy activists in late May, asserting that “we always raise democracy and human rights.  It is a core pillar of our foreign policy.”  This was followed by Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, in which democracy was explicitly identified as one of seven key challenges, along with the related issues of women’s rights and freedom of religion. 

Although democracy activists across the Arab world have welcomed this belated rhetorical support, they have stressed that rhetoric alone is insufficient and must be backed up by policy and resources.  And while the Cairo speech contained specific, actionable agenda items on economic development, health, and education, the section on democracy was notably lacking in such specifics.  By contrast, President Obama’s July 2009 speech in Ghana more strongly emphasized the need to support democracy in Africa, and included many more specifics on addressing issues such as repression, government corruption, legislative and judicial checks on executive power, and the ability of opposition forces to organize politically.

Arab publics remember too well the soaring democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration, viewed as unaccompanied by effective policies or actions.  For these reasons, Obama’s first budget, for Fiscal Year 2010, is particularly important, as it is one of the first concrete demonstrations of the substantive policy priorities of the new administration. So what does this budget tell us?

Broadly, Obama’s first budget sends mixed signals about the place of democracy among his administration’s priorities for the region.  On one hand, the overall level of funding for U.S. assistance programs to support democracy, governance, and human rights in Arab world has increased.  This includes large requests for programs run by the United States Agency for International Development in Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen, as well as a boost of more than 70 percent for the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  

But at the same time, the budget also raises a few serious concerns.  While democracy funding for the region as a whole has increased, such funding for key Arab allies Egypt and Jordan has sharply decreased.  Moreover, requests for democracy assistance to independent civil society associations have been cut by 29 percent across the Arab worldin favor of funding for rule-of-law and governance programs run by Arab governments.  This last point has drawn much criticism, as observers fear that U.S. support for democracy may have shifted too far in favor of working with autocratic regimes on governance issues rather than directly engaging and supporting people, despite the promise of the Cairo address. 

What still remains relatively unknown, as compared with the administration's approach to public rhetoric and its allocation of funding, is its approach to diplomacy. Are diplomats conveying to Arab regimes that democracy is a priority?  Strategic dialogue with Arab governments in private will be constructive if reform issues are addressed seriously, but if private diplomacy does not address democracy, it may be interpreted by Arab regimes as tacit approval of the authoritarian status quo. Because such diplomacy and strategic dialogue takes place behind closed doors, it is difficult for observers to know now whether reform issues are being included. Administration officials insist that democracy is a part of ongoing dialogue with autocratic allies, but in the absence of real progress on reform, Arab reformers view such claims with skepticism. 

Overall, the Obama administration has made some strong first steps toward renewing U.S. relations with the Middle East, but its approach to supporting Arab reform is as of yet less clear.  On one hand, the administration could be following a careful, thoughtful approach in which support for democratic reformers will follow progress on public diplomacy and other diplomatic priorities, and in which restored relationships with Arab governments will pave the way for cooperation on reform.  On the other hand, we could instead be witnessing a longer-term downgrading of support for democracy by this administration, which would have dire consequences for citizens of Arab states.  While the administration’s public rhetoric and its annual budget each offer some potential signs of support for Arab democracy, fears that the United States has abandoned the cause of Arab reformers will persist until U.S. engagement spurs its autocratic allies to undertake visible, substantive steps toward reform.

Stephen McInerney is director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and author of the recent report, The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2010: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East.