US lawmakers move to block Trump’s efforts to cut aid for Tunisia
Washington - Lawmakers in Washington have moved to reverse plans by US President Donald Trump’s administration to slash aid for Tunisia.
Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 includes a drastic reduction of funds for the US State Department, in part to pay for a planned increase in defence spending. Foreign aid is to be slimmed down considerably across the board, with Tunisia scheduled to receive $55 million in 2018, after getting about $140 million in the current fiscal year.
However, the US House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee on July 12 released a bill that seeks cuts in foreign aid that are less severe than those planned by the administration. Under the bill, Tunisia would receive “no less” than $165.4 million.
Overall, the House is proposing to cut US foreign aid by $10 billion, less than the $17 billion sought by the administration, with military assistance remaining at high levels. “The bill continues strong support for Foreign Military Financing programmes for Ukraine, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia — at or above current levels,” the committee said in a statement. The bill upholds loan guarantees for Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Ukraine.
The bill was released as senior members of Congress vowed to prevent deep reductions in aid. “I can assure you that the Congress of the United States, both Republican and Democrat, will not allow those cuts to take place,” US Senator John McCain said July 11 during a Heritage Foundation panel discussion that included Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
Separately, Ed Royce, another Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement after meeting with Chahed that Tunisia was facing the challenge of Islamist extremists who had fought in Libya and Syria and were returning to their home countries.
“It is in the [United States’] national security interests to continue helping Tunisia combat these returning terrorists by maintaining foreign assistance levels,” Royce’s statement said. An estimated 6,000 Tunisians have joined the Islamic State (ISIS), making the North African country the single biggest source of foreign ISIS fighters.
Chahed told the Heritage Foundation panel that Tunisia needed continued support by Washington to ensure economic growth and to be equipped for the fight against radical groups. “Any discontinuation will send the wrong message to those terrorist groups,” he said.
Tunisia has received more than $865 million in US aid since 2011, the US Embassy in Tunis said. Washington has given economic support, human rights assistance and help in counterterrorism efforts.
Gordon Brown, a former State Department official familiar with Tunisia, said while US aid was not an economic necessity for Tunisia, it constituted a “very important symbolic figure.” American loan guarantees and other steps are significant because they signal that Washington has confidence in Tunis, Brown said.
“The cuts would be seen as a lack of confidence and a slap in the face of moderates in the Middle East,” he said.
McCain argued it would be short-sighted to slash support for Tunisia and similar countries because that could destabilise governments and result in foreign policy and security problems for the United States. “Haven’t we learned the lesson of Libya?” he asked.
Tunisia’s eastern neighbour descended into anarchy after the overthrow of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Tunisia, on the other hand, has been hailed as a success story because, despite setbacks, the country has built democratic institutions since long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the same year. “Tunisia is struggling but winning,” McCain said.
Critics said Trump’s proposed budget cuts do not fit the president’s overall aim of cementing the United States’ role as the leading power in the Middle East.
“If the United States wants to lead, we cannot do that by withdrawing,” said Hady Amr, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former US government official dealing with aid for the Middle East under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. “The Trump administration should absolutely be doing everything they can to stabilise the economy of Tunisia.”
Even key members of Trump’s cabinet appear reluctant to promote foreign aid cuts. In his meeting with Chahed, US Defence Secretary James Mattis “affirmed the strong US commitment for continued support to Tunisia,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
Infighting and conflicting messages have hounded the Trump administration since it took office in January. “They seem to be a bit unprepared and there appears to be little coordination between the White House and various departments,” Amr said. As a result, “the Trump administration has been less cohesive in its messaging than other administrations”.
McCain was adamant that the White House would not be able to ram its planned cuts through Congress. “I’m telling you: That will not happen, that will not happen, that will not happen,” he said.