Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at a workshop on aid conditionality that DAWN cohosted with the MIT Center for International Studies.
For as long as there has been a human rights agenda, Americans have argued about how to structure aid programs to maximize U.S. influence and promote U.S. values. Yet profound misunderstandings undergird those arguments. Not only do aid recipients wildly overestimate their own strategic value to Washington—especially in the Middle East, where America spends considerable amounts of its aid—but decision-makers within the U.S. government often hold contradictory views on the goals of that assistance.
The result is a toxic form of what Henry Kissinger called "constructive ambiguity." Middle Eastern governments see U.S. aid as an entitlement that comes with being an American security partner. Some U.S. leaders, in turn, think the aid expands America's hard power. Other American observers and human rights advocates, meanwhile, imagine that aid creates leverage for the U.S. to persuade authoritarians in the region to respect rights and implement democratic practices.
It is no wonder, given this mismatch in expectations, that imposing conditions on that aid, especially for human rights concerns, almost never propels reform and rarely alters the political behavior of recipient regimes at all—no matter the size of the aid package, how much of it is withheld, or whether it is for military or civilian use. The numbers tell a disappointing story. Most of America's assistance in the Middle East covers military aid to three countries: Israel, Egypt and Jordan. That aid has taken on a quasi-permanent status in Washington, even though it deeply distorts the politics and economy of all three countries. The situation is slightly better in humanitarian crises, most notably the war in Syria, where the U.S. is a generous leader in funding, although still embarrassingly stingy about admitting refugees.
Yet neither military nor humanitarian aid—nor, even, weapons sales—have prompted countries to revise their calculations about their own national interests, or their approach to governance. In a sense, it's not about them; it's about us.
"Intent is key to understanding how aid conditionality is supposed to work, and why it doesn't. The short answer is that the donor government—in this case, the United States—is not actually committed to any reform agenda that is nominally attached to its aid flows."
- Thanassis Cambanis
The decision-makers who ultimately authorize the most significant U.S. aid expenditures understand this aid in political terms, as rewards for partners who advance some critical U.S. interest. On the other hand, those more familiar with the details and impact of these aid programs—the professionals who design and oversee them, the weakly empowered congressional overseers, and a range of human rights advocates—understand U.S. aid flows as the sole avenue to promote the critical agenda around rights and good governance, on everything from free speech to due process to education to anti-corruption.
Intent is key to understanding how aid conditionality is supposed to work, and why it doesn't. The short answer is that the donor government—in this case, the United States—is not actually committed to any reform agenda that is nominally attached to its aid flows. In the Middle East, the U.S. goes to great lengths to overlook routine, endemic violations of the conditions attached to aid by U.S. law. Washington skirts or ignores outright those legal obligations, in the Foreign Assistance Act, the Arms Export Control Act and the so-called Leahy Laws. Even when the U.S. does withhold aid, it doesn't seem to change regime behavior.
Look no further than the Obama administration's frustrating response to the 2013 coup in Egypt, which the White House embarrassingly refused to call a coup. The U.S. government temporarily withheld some weapons transfers, which Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime claimed were a serious impediment to its domestic counterterrorism operations. But Egypt didn't make any concessions during the year and a half that it was deprived of American weapons to which it felt entitled. Sure enough, by the spring of 2015, U.S. military aid resumed—with no change in Egypt's behavior.
The longer answer about aid conditionality is that it would not compel recipient governments to change their policies, even if the U.S. pursued a reform agenda that integrated its diplomatic, military and aid strategies. The history of U.S. aid as a lever for reform is littered with failures. Long-term aid recipients like Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon have never once undertaken a reform requested by Washington in exchange for copious aid.
Israel only once, and for a brief time, froze settlement activity under U.S. pressure—and that was nearly three decades ago. Since then, American support has consistently increased, indifferent to whether the particular administration in Washington supports or opposes Israel's continued settlement expansion and ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory. Even in conflict zones and weak states, such as Iraq, where enormous U.S. aid expenditures have sometimes been undertaken in conjunction with large-scale military and political assistance, they have had little to no effect when it comes to encouraging or incentivizing reforms.
Why don't these approaches work? The big three of Egypt, Israel and Jordan have all correctly calculated that the real decision-makers in the U.S. government don't really care about the human rights conditions supposedly attached to aid—or, at least, they can't be bothered to deal with the political blowback in Washington if they were to cut aid. In Iraq, governments sympathetic to a reform agenda—like those of Haider al-Abadi and Mustafa al-Kadhimi—are no more able to alter corrupt, power-sharing mechanisms than governments hostile to American requests—like those of Nouri al-Maliki and Adel Abdul Mahdi. Good governance is out of reach for reasons that U.S. aid cannot change. The threat to withhold aid, or even cancel it, cannot change the existential calculus of political actors whose survival and power depends on a corrupt and violent system. Such notions are based on a fantasy of American leverage that simply does not exist.
Despite the rhetoric about human rights and democracy, and the serious but mostly ineffective push by advocates of conditionality to cut aid when recipient governments commit atrocities, U.S. policy in practice is quite consistent. Successive administrations of very different political stripes have all dispensed aid to allies and partners as a reward for perceived loyalty on matters of security, economics and politics—but never on the basis of a test of rights, democracy or governance.
Debates about the merits of this policy must distinguish between humanitarian assistance, long-term civilian aid, military aid and weapons sales. But even acknowledging those differences in aid, it's telling that all four modalities fail to create an avenue to constructively steer state behavior. Massive weapons contracts with Saudi Arabia have never resulted in the kind of influence that many Americans imagine they should have—not even during the Yemen war, in which the U.S. was providing vital intelligence and logistics support for Saudi airstrikes. Saudi Arabia passes muster with a long parade of U.S. officials because of its steady willingness to adjust oil supplies in support of American interests, and because of its support for U.S. priorities in the region, even when those priorities are destabilizing, such as the invasion and haphazard occupation of Iraq in 2003, the marginalization of Palestinians and "maximum pressure" on Iran. The rest of Saudi Arabia's actions, often in direct contravention of U.S. interests, become a secondary consideration to Washington—whether it is support for international extremists in the 1990s and 2000s, military confrontation across the Middle East and North Africa in the 2000s and 2010s, or unprecedented repression under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since 2015.
"In Syria, the U.S. spends almost as much on humanitarian assistance in regime areas as it does in opposition areas; many opposition groups have terrible governance and rights practices. U.S. assistance is fundamentally intended to protect vulnerable civilians—an achievable goal—rather than to pursue laudable but ultimately impossible political aims."
- Thanassis Cambanis
Is there a way that U.S. aid could instead do less harm? It is short-sighted and unfortunate that the United States always prioritizes short-term security interests over long-term matters of governance, especially since it is state failure and malgovernance that have fueled another generation of conflict in the Middle East and made it a global driver of instability. But aid policy, sadly, reflects a consistent U.S. worldview.
The history of aid in the Middle East, and more widely in conflict zones and fragile states, suggests that no approach is likely to yield a serious transformation on rights and governance. The approach of other major aid providers and administrators—including the United Nations, the European Union, and bilateral programs by wealthy European countries and Japan—have fared no better in changing rights and governance practices in the region.
Recipient regimes are far more interested in military than civilian aid; the military aid greatly enhances their power, more so than the much smaller grants for civilian programs. With that security assistance, the transactional tradeoff is clear. Given how regimes use their security forces, any U.S. military aid is an American endorsement of more of the same—and not, as some observers and advocates have fantasized, an opportunity for the U.S. to obtain greater say over, for example, Saudi targeting decisions in Yemen or Egypt's treatment of detainees. Military assistance doesn't enable the U.S. to reform foreign militaries; the assistance simply amplifies what's there, effective or ineffective. It is virtually impossible to imagine a "do no harm" principle in military aid—and in most cases, for that matter, the U.S. and its aid recipients share some common strategic interests independent of the aid relationship.
Humanitarian aid, by contrast, offers a better conceptual framework and a better record in practice. Washington has been the most generous donor in the world to efforts to help people harmed by the Syrian conflict. With the proviso that this aid is still insufficient, and comes alongside a historically embarrassing failure by the U.S. government to admit a meaningful number of refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria, U.S. aid efforts there are arguably the model for a more honest and viable approach. America spends this aid money in pursuit of an outcome—humanitarian relief—that it sees in its own interest. It doesn't do so because it believes these aid expenditures will somehow persuade governments or nonstate actors to revise their perceived self-interest and adopt new policies on the ground in Syria that accord with Washington's preferences, rather than their own. In Syria, the U.S. spends almost as much on humanitarian assistance in regime areas as it does in opposition areas; many opposition groups have terrible governance and rights practices. U.S. assistance is fundamentally intended to protect vulnerable civilians—an achievable goal—rather than to pursue laudable but ultimately impossible political aims.
Coercion rarely works to compel states to revise their well-calculated interests. Given that U.S. threats of invasion and sanctions have already failed to achieve their ends across the Middle East, how likely is it that the inducement of government aid will somehow succeed?