The Obama administration is proposing to omit a longstanding legislative provision aimed at preventing American foreign aid being blocked or manipulated by repressive foreign leaders. 

The proposed removal from the administration’s budget and appropriations request for next fiscal year of a provision instructing the Secretary of State not to seek the prior approval of host governments when funding non-profits and civil society groups overseas is infuriating American democracy-promotion and human-rights activists, who argue the omission marks a retreat in U.S. leadership.

They warn the Obama administration is in effect signaling to repressive regimes that they can dictate where U.S. democracy-promotion and human rights money goes in their countries—a problem the provision introduced a decade ago was meant to combat.  

“This is turning the clock back to when the State Department would avoid funding civil society groups blacklisted by their governments,” says Cole Bockenfeld, director of Advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington DC-based non-profit.

He claims the omission will feed into perceptions the Obama administration is quietly giving up on promoting democracy especially when it comes to the Middle East.

American democracy and human-rights groups have long charged that the Obama administration has been schizophrenic in its approach to democracy advocacy and support: retreating from a “freedom agenda” and surreptitiously diminishing the Bush-era focus on democracy while at the same time talking up its commitment to democracy promotion. In a May 2011 speech, President Obama pledged to elevate the promotion of democracy and human rights to key pillars of America’s foreign policy, insisting they would not be treated as secondary interests.

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