The Cable

Congress prepares 'Middle East Stability' funding package

There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.

"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.

The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.

Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.

Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.

Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.

Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.

"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."

If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly.

"Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.

The Cable

Lugar: U.S. failing to combat Internet censorship by China

On the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will give a major speech on protecting freedom of information, especially in cyberspace, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report criticizing the U.S. government for failing to confront the Chinese government's Internet censorship policies.

"In the same way that our trade with China is out of balance, it is clear to even the casual observer that when it comes to interacting directly with the other nation's public we are in another lop-sided contest," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) wrote in the new report (PDF). "China has a vigorous public diplomacy program, based on a portrayal of an ancient, benign China that is, perhaps, out of touch with modern realities. Nonetheless, we are being overtaken in this area of foreign policy by China, which is able to take advantage of America's open system to spread its message in many different ways, while using its fundamentally closed system to stymie U.S. efforts."

Not only is Beijing using its tight control over the Internet to shield the population from news and information related to government behavior, it is now exporting its censorship technologies to other repressive countries, including Iran, Cuba, and Belarus, Lugar's report stated. He called on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which administers U.S. public diplomacy programs, to take the lead in combating China's worldwide Internet censorship effort.

Though Chinese media has free reign in the United States, BBG organizations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are regularly blocked in China, forcing the stations to broadcast on short wave radio from long distances, Lugar's report said. Meanwhile, the State Department has not spent about $30 million of the $50 million appropriated to them since 2008 by Congress to fight these efforts.

Lugar wrote to Clinton this month to ask her to take $8 million of those funds and give them directly to the BBG, in addition to the $1.5 million State transfered to BBG for this effort last October.

New BBG chairman Walter Isaacson told an audience last October that the U.S. government needed to give the BBG more money to compete with other nationally owned media organizations, including those run by the Chinese government.

"We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies," he said. "You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world [and has] reportedly set aside six to ten billion [dollars] -- we've to go to Capitol Hill with that number -- to expand their overseas media operations."

In her speech to be delivered on Tuesday, Clinton is poised to say that the U.S. government is committed to upholding the rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights in cyberspace, according to advance excerpts of her remarks obtained by The Cable.

"The United States will continue to promote an Internet where people's rights are protected and that is open to innovation, is interoperable all over the world, secure enough to hold people's trust, and reliable enough to support their work," Clinton will say. "There is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression. There's no "app" for that. And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach -- one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the BBG had not spent $30 million out of $50 million allocated to fight internet censorship. The State Department, not the BBG, was the recipient of those funds.

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