US lawmakers move to block Trump’s efforts to cut aid for Tunisia

Sunday 16/07/2017
Strong commitment. US Defence Secretary James Mattis (L) welcomes Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed at the Pentagon, on July 10. (AP)

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.