POMED Notes: “Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities and Needs Amidst Economic Challenges in the Middle East”
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held a hearing entitled, “Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priories and Needs Amidst Economic Challenges in he Middle East.” The committee heard testimony from Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Mara Rudman, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for the Middle East at USAID. Mark Ward, Deputy Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions at the U.S. State Department also appeared as a witness. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) resided as chair and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) co-chaired the proceedings.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) opened the proceedings stating that a year ago he was “cautiously optimistic” that democracy and human rights may take hold in the Arab world, but today the picture is much different. He suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood is “on the verge” of taking complete control in Egypt and Syria is collapsing into a civil war, while the Israelis and Palestinians “do not even appear to be close” to resuming talks “despite repeated Israeli overtures.” Additionally, international mechanisms like the United Nations “have ground to a halt” due to failure of countries like Russia and China to cooperate. However, Chabot said that while regional circumstances have changed, U.S. interests have not: maintain shipping lanes, securing energy for the world economy, ensuring regional stability, and combating terrorism.
He said that the proposed Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, which sets aside $770 million, appears similar to other assistance programs. Money should not be substituted for thoughtful policy and the lack of details about how the incentive fund would operate make it more like that the money would be wasted which would enable “hasty and reckless policy”. Chabot expressed similar doubts about the current policies toward Syria and Egypt. Current policy in Syria, said Chabot, will not achieve the goal of ousting Assad. In Egypt, the decision to waive certification on Egypt democratic progress prior to granting military aid relayed a contradictory message to the region. Chabot concluded that foreign assistance “must ultimately be shaped by the choices and policies made by regional governments,” and it is in our interest to support the transition to democracy, however the current assistance programs in play may have to be re-evaluated.
Gary Ackerman (D-NY) followed up the opening statements saying the first priority of the committee ought to be meeting the Obama’s request for increased foreign assistance for the Middle East in the next year. Disengaging now, said Ackerman, would leave space for others to determine the fate of the region. According to Ackerman, foreign assistance is “every bit as critical” at protecting our interests as defense spending. While our traditional objectives have not changed, the U.S. must be able to handle short-term concerns facing the region. Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen continue to struggle towards democracy and the U.S. commitment to Iraq is ongoing, as well as support for Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, said Ackerman. “The bedrock commitment we’ve made to Israel”,” said Ackerman, “must be sustained and strengthened.” Ackerman said that he was “bitterly disappointed” with “the absurd decision” made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek statehood at the UN, but remained hopeful that Israel “will one day be the mid-wife” to a Palestinian state.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) stated that the three U.S. core interests (preventing wide scale conflict, protecting Israel, and promoting a just civil society and government structures that reflect the needs of local populations) had not changed. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who had recently returned from visits to Egypt and Libya, urged the committee that it was too early to pass judgment on the events unfolding in Egypt. He said that the U.S. needs to give Egypt “a little bit of time” and “tread softly lest we [the U.S.] create outcomes we wish to avoid.”
Jeffrey Feltman stated that while the region in the midst of tremendous change, core U.S. interests remain in place. Thus, the Bureau of Near Eastern affairs necessitated a reconceptualization in its strategic approach to the region. The FY2013 budget responds to the demands of the people of the region during the period of transition. In response to the changes, the bureau will work with new actors and pool interagency resources to coordinate the necessary programs. Feltman stated that it was too early to tell what forms of governance would take hold in these countries, but what is known is that it is vital to from partnerships with actors that will protect our interests. Failing to engage now will risk losing risk in the region. Feltman highlighted the ongoing efforts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria to explain progress that had already been made. He discussed the MENA-Incentive Fund, a $770 million aid package that will enable the US. to respond to developments in the region and it is designed to be responsive to country-led reform movements.
Mara Rudman was next to testify, asserting that while the region offers hope and opportunity, it faces challenges, and it is incumbent on USAID to deliver on America’s values and invest in safety, security, and prosperity of the region. While countries across the region face similar issues, each comes from a different historical perspective and thus is experiencing its own unique transition and requires customized programs. The total government assistance to Tunisia, for example, is $297 million, which has gone to support Tunisia’s civil society, electoral campaigns, and fuels economic growth. USAID also has committed extensive resources to humanitarian needs and has provided critical health serves in places like Syria and Yemen. USAID has supported the development of economic opportunities in the region with the highest amount of youth unemployment, of which have included educational and technical programs. New programs, said Rudman, like the MENA Incentive Fund ensures that as the Middle East continues to evolve, the U.S. can have a positive impact by ensuring transparency, equal opportunity, humanitarian access, all of which exposes the region to the compassion of the American people.
Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH) began questioning the witnesses about the Obama administration decision to grant Egypt its full $1.3 billion in annual military aid despite its government’s failure to meet congressional conditions. Jeffrey Feltman responded saying that it is necessary to note that a lot of progress has been made in the last year in a half in Egypt if viewed from the macro-perspective. Egypt has had free and fair elections and the military government is committed to handing power over to civilians. He said that the transition is on the way, “warts and all.” Justifying the granting of the aid money, Feltman said that there is a need to nurture old and new partnerships in Egypt. The military will undoubtedly be a necessary partner in the future in order to secure our interests and to ensure the Camp David accords are in place. Chabot addressed his response noting other issues such as the ongoing anti-American sentiments being spewed by the state media, the NGO prosecutions, and the Egypt shutting off natural gas to Israel. Feltman responded saying that there are many more local NGOs operating across the country, which is a positive result of the transition. It is the State Department’s position that the case against the U.S. NGOs need to be dropped.
Gary Ackerman (D-NY) asked the witnesses if any additional personnel had been added to deal with additional problems or if the State Department had just “moved people around” and “given people additional responsibilities.” Feltman noted that an entirely new offices had been created. Rudman said that additional young people have been sent to the field, increasing personnel strength. Fortenberry asked about the Green Movement in Iran, and Feltman said that the leaders have been exiled or arrested, but the State Department continues to attempt to provide tools to the Iranian civil society to navigate heavy restrictions. He also stated that the real impact of the sanctions would not come into view until July.
Rep. Connolly stated that his meetings with civil society members in Egypt revealed great concern that the U.S. government is abandoning them. Feltman responded saying that the U.S. continues to provide legal support, pay legal bills, and engage Egyptians on all levels, and noted that the U.S. “went to bat” with Interpol. Connolly said however that the issue in the eyes of the Egyptian rulers seems “second tier” and stated that the Congress “will not forget” and any actions taken by the Egyptian government “will have consequences.” Chabot, Connolly, and Ackerman collectively made statements that aid is not an entitlement. Connolly insisted that the incentive fund “does not have metrics” and expressed frustration about making U.S. taxpayers pour money into programs that cannot be measured. Chabot said he got the feeling that the Egyptian government “seems to be under the impression that they can do pretty much whatever they want without any serious repercussions.”