The State Department will formally create a new position later this week to oversee American aid efforts in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia even as the Obama administration debates whether the U.S. should play a leading role in helping to rebuild the three countries.
Sources familiar with matter say William Taylor, a well-regarded former American ambassador to the Ukraine, will be filling the role. He previously managed reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe. The formal announcement will come as early as Thursday, these sources said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on Taylor's pending appointment or the exact contours of his new position. "I think we'll have more to say about this later this week," she wrote in an e-mail.
The move comes amid growing indications that the Obama administration is planning to devote only minimal American financial resources to aid and capacity-building efforts in the three countries, in part because of a fierce political backlash in Egypt over an earlier aid push.
In the aftermath of the popular protests that toppled longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. forgave roughly $1 billion of Egyptian debt and announced plans to devote $65 million to projects aimed at building new political parties and nongovernmental organizations as well as $100 million to help stimulate the moribund Egyptian economy. The aid would have been in addition to the $1.3 billion Egypt gets every year in military aid.
But Egypt's military rulers reacted furiously to new aid, arguing that money should be funneled to Cairo rather than directly to the political parties. A senior member of the military government publicly accused Washington of violating Egypt's sovereignty. Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, fired back, saying Washington was concerned about the "anti-Americanism that's creeping into the Egyptian public discourse." Last month, the USAID country director for Egypt, Jim Bever, was abruptly brought back to the U.S. To date, only about $40 million of the planned American aid has been spent.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, seems content to take a backseat when it comes to rebuilding Libya, just as it did during the military campaign there. The U.S. has given the country's new rebel government $1.5 billion in Qaddafi-related funds that have been frozen for months in American banks. But the White House has shied away from committing significant aid, allocating less than $100 million, far less than its allies. In July, the Congressional Research Service said the administration has “not publicly disclosed any plans for U.S. participation in post-conflict security, stability, or reconstruction operations in Libya” or signaled that “it planned requests for funding to support” similar efforts by third-parties like NATO, the U.N., the E.U., or the African Union.
In part, the modest U.S. aid to Libya reflects American public opinion, which has turned sharply against foreign nation-building exercises amid economic woes at home and the uncertain results of similar efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Late last month, a CNN/ORC International poll found that a whopping 73 percent of Americans oppose funding Libya’s reconstruction. The administration has so far budgeted only limited amounts of aid money for Tunisia as well.
Still, people familiar with Taylor's past work said he will likely bring needed clarity to the American reconstruction projects in the three countries and make sure Washington is maximizing the impact of aid dollars there.
Taylor, a graduate of West Point and Harvard's Kennedy School, recently served as vice president of the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
A former Army officer and Vietnam veteran, Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009 and Washington's representative to the Mideast Quartet, which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Earlier stints may prove more directly relevant to his new post: In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he was in Kabul to help coordinate international and U.S. assistance to Afghanistan.
This article appears in the September 7, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.