Hearing Notes – Assessing Pres. Obama’s FY 2017 MENA Budget Request

On Wednesday April 13, 2016, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled, “Assessing President Obama’s Middle East and North Africa FY 2017 Budget Request.” Witnesses included Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Paige Alexander, Assistant Administrator for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). To watch a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced the hearing, emphasizing the United States’ continued support of Israel in an increasingly dangerous environment–applauding that the budget continues to ensure that Israel’s defense remains intact, and urging the creation of a new, robust memorandum of understanding (MOU) that reflects the “new reality the Jewish state faces in the region.” She commended the continued support of Jordan, specifically the $1 billion dollar pledged for its efforts in hosting refugees and fighting on the frontlines against the Islamic State (IS). She noted, however, that the $1 billion pledge reflects a significant trend in the current budget that requests shifting assistance from the regular foreign affairs budget to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. Nearly half of this year’s proposed funds for Jordan are OCO, and it is particularly troubling that Jordan’s funding will come through OCO, despite the MOU that has been re-signed, according to the Chairwoman.

Ros-Lehtinen described Tunisia as a strategically-important nation whose democratic transition is a model for other states in the region. Significantly larger aid packages to Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, however, indicate that the Obama administration does not see Tunisia or its democratic future as a priority. She emphasized that Tunisia is facing “trying times” and the U.S. demonstrate commensurate support. Regarding Egypt, Ros-Lehtinen confirmed that its security and stability are key U.S. national security interests. As such, the administration must continue to provide Cairo with sufficient military aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF). She noted, however, a significant “pipeline issue” in which the U.S. administration has not yet spent between $500-700 million in previously appropriated economic aid for Egypt. Finally, she stated that the administration’s request for funds for the West Banks is “most egregious,” as Palestinian leaders continue to “incite violence against Israelis, continue to seek to delegitimize the Jewish State, and continue to undermine the negotiation process.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) opened his remarks stating that the greatest foreign policy challenges are from the MENA region, as reflected in the State Department’s request for a 9 percent budget increase for the relevant countries over the FY15 actual spending figures. He added that the devastating humanitarian crisis in Syria will have implications for decades to come, and although the international response has been “deeply frustrating,” he applauded the Obama administration for its contributions to humanitarian relief. Furthermore, he said the U.S. must look for sustainable ways to support those displaced by war. Specifically, the U.S. must increase capacity for schools, healthcare centers, and workforce for refugees–all of which will benefit both the refuges and their host countries. As the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to worsen and as political talks stall, humanitarian needs on the ground are increasing and the U.S. must be able to respond accordingly to that conflict as well.

In Tunisia, Deutch said, the administration must continue to bolster the “nascent democracy’s” economy while stabilizing its security. The situation In Libya is also “tenuous,” said Deutch, as the number of IS fighters there have doubled. It is more important than ever for Libya to move forward with a unity government. Deutch expressed appreciation for the cooperation between Egypt and Israel, especially in the fight against IS, but emphasized the need to prioritize human rights which “must always be a part of the conversation, even when difficult.” He explained he has been troubled by Palestine’s increasing restrictions on civil society and said efforts would be better served to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join negotiations, to support economic institutions, and increase transparency and accountability in the West Bank and Gaza.

Rep. David Ciciline (D-RI) said that in light of increasing threats to global security, this proposed foreign assistance budget is particularly important, and the Middle East demands the most attention worldwide as reflected in the proposed increase to the regional budget. “Vast security and humanitarian needs” justify increased spending levels, stated Ciciline.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) spoke about education in Lebanon, and Lebanon’s “concerning” incapacity to successfully care for 800,000 Syrian refugees. According to Issa, the current USAID strategy falls short of addressing the inadequate educational structure  and does not clearly allow the U.S. to have its imprint of  “non-radicalization” on the curriculum. Issa urged a strategic plan for all youth in the region. During the question-and-answer period, Assistant Administrator Alexander stated that USAID recently signed an MOU with Lebanon for a $41 million education program. Issa also emphasized that funding to Egypt is essential, referring to the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) in the Sinai as “sitting ducks” who have outlived their historic role and who need to refocus their purpose as soldiers meant to keep peace between two allies.

Rep. David Trott (R-MI) linked the Muslim brotherhood to the persecution of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, while suggesting it is “reprehensible” that the administration claims to promote values of religious freedom, yet holds meetings with groups, like the Brotherhood, that continuously violate those freedoms.

Both Patterson and Alexander opened their testimonies with a list of the “most demanding challenges” to U.S. interests in the region. These included the Islamic State, political negotiations in Syria, divided states in Libya and Yemen. It is in the U.S.’s long term interest, according to Patterson, to “invest strategically” in addressing these threats.

In an effort to “focus not only on crises but also on successes in the region,” Patterson cited Tunisia, a “burgeoning democracy,” and a strong partnership with Morocco, which is rooted in security cooperation and economic interests. In response to a question about the recent developments of the Morocco-Western Sahara controversy, Patterson remarked it was an “unfortunate” situation, yet maintained that Morocco is a good friend to the United States. She suggested that the country has made significant human rights progress.

“The FY 2017 request provides funding to continue promoting core American values whether through partnerships with civil society across the region or programs promoting equitable economic growth, job creation, and open markets which are not only essential to advancing stability, but also to counter violent extremism,” Patterson said. She discussed the recent MOU with Jordan, which outlines the future aid relationship intended to help Jordan in the fight against IS, and confirmed U.S. commitment to working with Israel to counter “Iran’s destabilizing activities.” Funding for Palestinians, Patterson continued, is “critical for both Israelis and Palestinians,” and  justifies the State Department request for funds to enhance security, education, and health systems in the Palestinian territories.

According to Alexander, USAID will continue “to partner with host communities to uncover the stressors in community life, and then help municipalities find practical solutions—for example, paving streets, replacing broken street lights or picking up the trash—which help alleviate tensions.” She also highlighted that USAID contributes to helping create a robust and stable Palestinian territory, will address pressing water needs in Gaza, support the Government of National Accord in in Libya, and finance private-sector workforce development needed in Tunisia.

During the question-and-answer period, Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) criticized the administration’s plans to provide funding to the Palestinian territories, and  Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) questioned whether funding to the PA has effectively acted to counter incitement of terrorism. Patterson agreed about the “egregious nature” of the system that sometimes glorifies acts of violence, and ensured Royce that she will delve more deeply into a solution. She did also confirm that most of U.S. funding helps with Palestinian infrastructure development, education, and health systems–all of which are essential for the stability and security of the PA and Israel. Other funding goes towards relieving the PA’s debt, including to Israel and to other creditors.

In response to a series of questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, Patterson confirmed that the State Department does not consider the group a terrorist organization, but rather recognizes it as a “legitimate political party in many countries in the Middle East.” She qualified that while there may be individual members involved in terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood as an institution denounced terror a long time ago.

Cicilline asked about the proposed removal of Egypt aid conditions language from the budget. At a time when Egypt’s human rights record is clearly so poor, does the removal of language not send “mixed messages,” he asked. Patterson responded that the administration removed most of those restrictions from its proposed budget language because it wants maximum flexibility for spending, and the changes don’t reflect the administration’s views of Egypt’s human rights, which she remarked are indeed of “great concern.” She noted “significant reverses and backslides” regarding Egypt’s human rights record as well.