We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Finance You

I wanted to piggy-back onto Mary’s response to Sami’s article, particularly as someone whose research was financed by an arm of the U.S. government and who has engaged directly with many of the sentiments expressed by Sami and his commenters.

The debate about U.S. funding is an old one, and one that has never been resolved, particularly in my field. I’ve had senior scholars tell me never, ever take the money, and I’ve had other senior scholars say “hey why not.” The problem in academia is typically approached from the perspective of the academic and the academic’s ethical culpability and responsibility to his or her research subjects. So Sami’s post is a very welcome, open articulation of sentiments I heard expressed to me again and again when I was in the Middle East, and a reminder that we need to think of this problem not in terms of our self-interests (as scholars, donors, think-tankers) but in terms of what’s best for the activists themselves. To simplify, many activists would say to me, simply, tell the U.S. Government (hereafter USG in the parlance of our day) to stay out of it. Their assistance is unneeded and when rendered, counterproductive. The other was, if you’re going to help us, give us the actual tools and don’t implicate us in schemes of power and policy with which we are likely to disagree.

I don’t know Sami, but I know some of the commenters on this post, including someone that refused to talk with me whenI was in Cairo. I was after all, in Egypt on Department of Education money (the Foreign Language Area Studies Scholarship, or FLAS). I was open about this to anyone that asked. I didn’t blame activists for ignoring me or being careful about doing interviews and taking money from outsiders. There is no way for anyone in the Middle East to know what your motives are, and honestly just doing fieldwork in Egypt for 9 months, I met multiple innocuous-seeming people who were almost certainly working for intelligence community. This is a problem not just of USG-funded initiatives but of anything coming out of the West at all, and that includes NGOs, think tanks, academic studies. You start out with a deficit of credibility and trust that you have to build from ground zero back up, and believe me it’s hard. Activists in the Middle East also surely know that even academics who agree with the broad critique of US foreign policy often go to DC and get paid to share their thoughts on a whole range of issues. There are very few academic Middle East specialists who have not gotten themselves tangled in this web at one point or another. I assume the same is true in the policy community.

I want to address some of Sami’s arguments head-on. First I’ve always thought that some of the people I study and interview operate with what strikes me as an insane disregard for the consequences of their own actions. I closed my dissertation with a call to carefully consider the ethics of involving 18-22-year-old college kids in international dissidence networks, because just as young people in the U.S. don’t always understand the privacy implications of the new digital universe, a lot of these activists I think don’t fully understand what they are getting themselves into. This is doubly true for activists traveling quite openly out of authoritarian states to conferences sponsored by the USG (but this is true for the “independently-funded” activists groups too. from the regimes’ perspective the problem isn’t USG it’s the activism). When I was publishing articles on my findings, I would often change the names of activists even if they didn’t ask me too, because I was concerned about any publicity that might result from my publications. If I used someone’s name, it was only someone who quite explicitly gave me permission, uses their name in public in other digital venues. So in that sense I fully agree with Sami, that activists should be careful accepting these invitations, and that donors and organizations need to take risk into consideration when issuing invitations and publishing proceedings. Some people understand the risk and will want to do it anyway. Is it right to proceed? I don’t know.

Second, yes obviously the Internet Freedom stuff is entirely at cross-purposes with the US grand strategy of realpolitik that Obama has openly re-endorsed. But I think some nuance is needed here. First of all, the neocon right has been at war with the State Department, quite open war, for the better part of two decades. Their bible is Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists. A lot of the people at State would love nothing more than to cut off funding for corrupt dictators and hand power to democratic oppositions, even if that means rolling the dice with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I’m not saying it should make any difference to the activists putting their safety at risk, but the USG is not a monolith, but rather a set of interlocking institutions that are often at policy odds with one another. Deep into the ranks of rank-and-file analysts at both State, CIA, NSA, you name it, are people who are very critical of US grand strategy in the region. This policy deadlock between many of the analysts and official US policy goes back to another decades-old debate, what I’ll call the “One Person, One Vote, One Time” problem, to borrow the phrase invented by Edward Djerejian after the Islamic Salvation Front debacle in Algeria. The U.S. has cast its lot with authoritarian governments like Mubarak’s because they don’t believe Islamist oppositions will really commit to a genuine democratic process that involves alternation of power. Most academics believe that this position is absurd, or at least not based on much evidence, whereas those pulling the levers of policy clearly believe Mubarak when he says, basically, it’s me or the crazy terrorists.

Now I’m as open a critic of US Mideast policy as anyone, but it’s probably not going to change anytime soon and we all know that. The maelstrom of Iraq backed everyone away from the “autocracy is the problem” camp back into “better the devil we know” territory. So this raises interesting questions. First, what the hell is the State Department doing here? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as blindly advancing imperialism. Another cold reality – even those in the policy community who would throw a party to celebrate the end of Mubarakism in Egypt and elsewhere are still committed to the idea that we can turn power over to liberal democrats instead of the Muslim Brothers. So most likely this is a well-intentioned effort to empower secular, liberal, democratic oppositions in the Middle East. This is a strategy that’s destined to backfire, for the simple reason that the liberals have very little support in comparison to the Brotherhood and its analogs elsewhere in the region. But we should at least entertain the notion that the State Department’s initiative is genuine and not an arm of U.S. grand strategy.

Which brings me generally to the problem with the absolutist, no-USG position. By saying no to this money under any circumstances, you are essentially leaving the field open to cyberdissidents.org and other foundations constructed with explicit or implicit funding from the neocon right. I mean yes, I would be very suspicious of anything remotely connected to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The point is this: the USG even in the middle of the recession, has a great deal of resources at its disposal and like it or not it’s going to throw that money around and wave its findings in the air and give speeches and bluster and support the right people and the wrong people at the same time, because the US is this enormous blunderbus that crushes everything in its path. The question for me is do you just get out of the way or do we get on board and try to help steer it? It’s certainly possible that the answer is just to say no – everyone would be better off without U.S. assistance, particularly in a region where grand strategy is so clearly at odds with espoused core principles of freedom. My caution is that into that vacuum will step individuals and organizations who are not well-intentioned at all, who actually do agree with US grand strategy, and who may do even more harm.

One thought on “We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Finance You

  1. In Mary’s post, my comment was that if the first step (an obvious one, I must add) is to reject U.S government funding, the 2nd step is to seek alternatives. I see no single article about these alternatives thus far. As someone based in the Arab world, running an active activist organization, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the struggle for funding is harder than most people give it credit for. That whole chaos with Haystack also just made this considerably tougher for us. Lots of individual donors will be shying away from donating to such causes without remembering those traumatizing turn of events.

    In my opinion, I feel that State Department money will always be questionable. I never usually buy the argument that there are no strings attached with such funding. Every other time we refuse to work with any organization even slightly associated with the State Department, we get bullied and ridiculed. It’s not always the case that the answer is just “we understand your concerns, thank you.” Some people just plainly cannot take “no” for an answer, disregarding what U.S government associations would do to a) our credibility and b) our personal security. I even showed Mary some evidence of this, how we are treated behind the scenes. It’s not all candy and rainbows. Some super questionable people are working with the U.S State Department, and I know for a fact that some of them are sincerely well-intentioned, but there is also a healthy number who aren’t and can even be abusive to organizations like ours who refuse collaboration. I don’t think we should be expected to dismiss that. It only makes us more aggressively against any and all U.S government sources and to continue raising doubts about their true intentions.

    Way back in 2006, an organization that never publicly disclosed their funding sources (and one which we later found was directly associated with the U.S State Department, with close ties to the Bush administration at the time) ran an essay competition about free speech in the Middle East. I thought why not, seemed easy enough. I joined up too. My essay got an honorable mention and appeared on their site. However, it only made it to their site after my criticism of U.S foreign policy, which I thought was critical to my message, was completely removed without my permission. This is ultimately what U.S funding does to a cause. It ceases to embrace true free speech and quickly becomes a mouthpiece for what the U.S government wants you to say, and how they want you to think.

    I would challenge anyone to get U.S State Department funding and then proceed to visibly campaign against U.S crimes in the Middle East, while exposing U.S funding and relationships with our own dictatorships or oppressive governments (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc). It’s simply not going to happen.

    Some of us here have experiences that suggest that U.S State Department money is extremely limiting, damaging, and dangerous. Even as a last resort, it should never be considered as an option if the project revolves around the MENA region.

    It’s upsetting, because funders like MEPI are the only ones making tempting offers to organizations and activists here. Of course, we reject them. But then they go off and like you said, fund organizations whose intentions aren’t pure, and most of whom don’t even get the work done.

    The only thing I wish to happen right now is for people to refrain from repeating the obvious and to start discussing what needs to be done to correctly address this problem. We don’t need more complaints. Like you said, this is a super old argument that only came to light recently (and probably because of that whole Haystack thing.) I also don’t think though that we should settle for State Department cash just because it’s there and willing to be spent. Such funds damage our personal security, not just our credibility, regardless of how the funds are used and what it’s for, the damage done in the name of the U.S State Department’s name is completely irreversible. What we need are alternatives. I want to question why there aren’t any achievable ones for the digital activists who are actually based here.

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