Obama’s budget request on MENA is ISIS-focused
Washington - The Obama administration sent its proposed budget for the next fiscal year to Congress in early February, the last budget request before US President Barack Obama’s term expires in January 2017.
The MENA portions of the budget contain the usual requests for Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians but also substantial support for countries and factions battling the Islamic State (ISIS), reflecting how the fight against the terror group has risen to the top of US foreign policy priorities.
The US Congress can reduce, increase or ignore a president’s budget request because it holds the “power of the purse” as stipulated in the US Constitution. However, since the administration sets the agenda by presenting its requests, Congress usually supports much of the proposal, especially in foreign affairs, although with some tinkering on the edges.
Because this is an election year, most likely Congress will not pass a new budget until after the new president is sworn in. Instead, just before the new fiscal year begins on October 1st, legislators are likely to pass “continuing resolutions”, which keep spending at level as the previous year, while it waits for the outcome of the presidential election. If a Republican wins the White House, the Republican-dominated Congress will want the new president to include his own priorities in the budget before Congress votes on it.
The latest budget request includes $3.1 billion in military aid for Israel and $1.45 billion for Egypt ($1.3 billion in military aid and $150 million in economic assistance), the same as in recent years. However, this year’s request for Egypt excludes language passed by Congress the previous year in which the US secretary of State is obliged to give updated assessments of democratic reforms and human rights before military aid can be released, with the proviso that such conditions can be waived for national security reasons.
Those conditions — even with the waiver — upset Egyptian officials to such an extent that the Obama administration wanted to avoid the headache of the backlash from Cairo and thus decided to send up its Egypt aid request this year without such language. US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in congressional testimony that there are “disturbing arrests and sentences” in Egypt but added that “we’ve got a huge interest in making sure Egypt doesn’t go down into a more difficult status than it is”.
The Foreign Military Funds (FMF) request for Egypt is justified in the budget request to “further our shared security interests… including counterterrorism and border security, safe commercial and military transit through the Suez Canal, regional military access enhanced by US overflight of Egyptian air space and maintenance of the Peace Treaty with Israel,” the budget document says.
As for the Palestinians, the budget request includes $35 million to strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces plus $338 million in economic assistance to help the PA with budgetary support and services such as health, education and infrastructure.
A good portion of the overall MENA assistance is geared towards giving support to states and factions fighting or being threatened by ISIS.
The request for Iraq is $1.8 billion overall and includes $333 million in economic assistance to support good governance and transparent use of public resources “to counter ISIS’s messaging and promote stabilisation, recovery and reconciliation”; $150 million to help improve the capability and professionalism of the Iraqi military; and the rest for other military assistance and counterterrorism programmes.
The request for Jordan is about $1 billion and includes $350 million to aid its armed forces concerning border security and their ability to support “ongoing operations against extremist threats stemming from Syria” and $632 million in economic assistance to “mitigate the economic strains” it faces “due to regional instability, the ISIS offensive and the influx of refugees”.
Lebanon is slated for $233.5 million, which includes $110 million in economic assistance because it is “on the front lines of the Syrian crisis and under constant threat from extremists such as ISIS at its borders”, $105 million in military aid to support the Lebanese armed forces and $10 million for law enforcement.
The Obama budget includes $175 million for the Syrian opposition in part to support local communities in “liberated areas to maintain basic services”.
The budget allocation for Tunisia, another state affected by ISIS attacks, includes $74 million in economic assistance, $45 million in military assistance and $13 million for law enforcement.
Given the heightened concern in US political circles (both Republicans and Democrats) about ISIS, it is likely these MENA budget requests will remain in place when the budget eventually gets passed. If anything, a Republican president, to prove that he is tougher than Obama on ISIS, might increase funding for Iraq and Jordan despite a likely pledge to be “fiscally conservative”.