American foreign policy in the Middle East may have been hijacked by demonstrations and violent attacks that have besieged diplomatic outposts in the region. But judging from government contracts and solicitations issued while embassies were overrun and consulates smoldered, the business of the United States in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen remains business.
In Egypt and Libya, where this week’s regional conflagration started, Washington is looking to get new technology projects underway. In Yemen and Tunisia, where it spread on Friday, it’s sending new military equipment and aid advisers, respectively. All this occurs as Congress questions whether financial assistance to countries convulsing under the Arab Spring ought to be cut off.
The day after demonstrators allegedly angered by an anti-Islam film hung an Islamic militants’ banner from the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency approved hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “feasibility study” on a “new 1,000 m2 data center” in Cairo, constructed by an Egyptian communications and tech company called Raya Holdings. “A full spectrum of cloud services would be offered,” according to a September 12 solicitation, “including solutions for private cloud deployments; co-location and hosting services; traditional ICT managed services; public cloud services for enterprises; and offerings such as Platform as a Service (PaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS).” The Trade and Development Agency is looking for a U.S. company to conduct the study; it will earn the company $285,804.
Benghazi, site of the Tuesday attack that killed four U.S. diplomatic personnel, is also considered potential tech hub for the Middle East. The same U.S. Trade and Development Agency will construct a series of internet exchange points (IXPs) in Benghazi and Tripoli “to reduce the cost and increase the performance and reliability of Internet access in Libya, and create nuclei for the formation of a domestic private-sector communications industry.” The idea is that the expansion of internet access will encourage “private-sector entrepreneurs seeking to establish Internet-dependent business such as Internet service providers, datacenters and collocation providers, hosted and cloud services companies, and Internet content publishing.” Everyone from the Libyan government to would-be internet startups is invited to “engage” with the Trade and Development Agency, which anticipates spending $80,000 on the effort. The project was announced literally while the Benghazi consulate was under siege, according to a timeline of the crisis provided Wednesday by the Obama administration.
Yemen and Tunisia, two other American partners whose citizens stormed U.S. embassies on Friday, are receiving more traditional aid. On Friday, where the U.S. military has a years-long project to bolster the Yemeni military, the Navy announced it wanted to buy 19 rigid-hull inflatable boats for its Yemeni partners, presumably to aid their fight against piracy. And in Tunisia, the U.S. Agency for International Development is seeking a senior manager, working under contract, to “help support rapid international transition programs for priority conflict-prone countries.”
The Tunisia job has a catch that might make finding an applicant difficult. The new representative will probably have to “travel extensively in low security areas of focus to monitor and assess political conditions, meet with potential grantees, and develop activity ideas.”
Of course, all these deals take place in countries that America considers to be friendly — despite the current violent spasm. And, for the most part, America wants to see its friends succeed and their economies grow. But U.S. legislators are starting to ask if the Arab Spring is spiraling out of control for U.S. interests. Conservative members of Congress argued for cutting off aid to Libya after the Tuesday attack. The House of Representatives’ top appropriator, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) stanched that rebellion by saying a current funding bill is off-limits to revisions — but that he’d be open next year to shutting off the cash for Arab Spring nations. The conservative Foreign Policy Initiative was so alarmed by the move that it warned in a Friday email, “cutting all U.S. assistance to these North African nations would undermine their nascent efforts to establish representative and democratic governments.”
Both Congress and the Obama administration are trying to find their bearings in the Mideast as the anger against the U.S. spreads. Policy may be revised. Government contracts, however, may prove more enduring.