Obama’s budget request on MENA is ISIS-focused

Friday 18/03/2016
US Capitol building in Washington.

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”.