The Foreign Affairs Budget: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

July 18, 2017
Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld

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When President Donald J. Trump took office in January 2017, many supporters of democracy and human rights feared that his administration would weaken already-timid support for democratic principles in U.S. foreign policy. Since his inauguration, President Trump and top officials have taken steps that have confirmed these fears, generating bipartisan concern about the direction of American foreign policy.

Trump and senior officials have praised authoritarian leaders, including some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, have rarely spoken in defense of rights and freedom, and have publicly downplayed the role of human rights and democracy in U.S. foreign policy. In proposing 30 percent cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy globally, Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request signals deep skepticism about the value of U.S. efforts to support democracy, human rights, and governance abroad. It marginalizes diplomacy and all non-military forms of international engagement, including most types of foreign aid. The budget request aims to slash the budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help fund a large increase to the Defense Department budget, prioritizing military engagement over diplomacy. Coupled with a proposal to close USAID Missions in as many as 37 countries around the world and to reorganize and reduce the size of the State Department, this would leave the United States woefully underrepresented and unprepared to respond to a host of global challenges.

As this report describes, these worrying trends are clearly visible in Trump’s budget for the Middle East and North Africa. The administration proposes deep cuts in bilateral assistance to most aid recipient countries in the region, with especially large cuts to programs to support democracy, human rights, and governance. The budget makes plain that its top priority in the region is counterterrorism, especially the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). It further shows that the administration sees counterterrorism almost exclusively as a job for military, intelligence, and security agencies with little or no role for the State Department or other civilian government agencies. In addition, the administration has not shown interest in addressing the role of domestic repression by authoritarian allies in fueling discontent, radicalization, terrorism, and violent conflict.

KEY FINDINGS:

President Trump’s first budget request includes drastic cuts to foreign affairs spending, including in foreign aid to most recipient countries in the Middle East and North Africa. While the budget proposes a 12 percent cut in funding to the MENA region as a whole, this understates the impact on most countries in the region, as the three largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance – Israel, Egypt, and Jordan – are exempted from any significant cuts. The budget proposes large cuts in bilateral assistance to Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, the West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen, ranging from 20 percent to 67 percent.

Under Trump, U.S. engagement with the Middle East and North Africa is becoming even more militarized, at the expense of diplomacy and development. The proposed budget would represent the highest proportion of U.S. foreign aid—80 percent—ever devoted to military and security assistance for the MENA region. In recent years, the Defense Department (DOD) has been steadily taking on a larger role in managing and administering security assistance, traditionally led by the State Department. The Trump administration’s budget would likely accelerate this trend. The proposal to shift Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for most countries from grants to loans could lead many recipient governments to seek DOD-managed security assistance to replace FMF grants, rather than taking on loans.

Deep cuts to leading U.S. democracy assistance mechanisms demonstrate the administration’s skepticism about the value of supporting democracy abroad. The FY18 budget request underscores the administration’s hostile rhetoric toward human rights and democracy in U.S. foreign policy by proposing steep (50 to 66 percent) cuts to the democracy assistance programming of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the Middle East Partnership Initiative; and the Near East Regional Democracy fund.

Despite proposing substantial changes to foreign aid programs around the world, the Trump budget leaves Egypt’s bilateral assistance – an aid package long overdue for reform and modernization – mostly untouched. The FY18 budget request proposes no meaningful changes to one of the world’s largest and most longstanding recipients of U.S. foreign aid, despite bipartisan views that aid to Egypt is long overdue for an overhaul. The proposed budget ignores Egypt’s escalating repression, including a draconian new NGO law that could make many U.S. assistance projects impossible to implement. The administration also proposes no reforms for Egypt’s outdated military assistance package.

Amidst worsening violent conflict and humanitarian crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the budget proposes dramatic reductions to lifesaving humanitarian assistance accounts. More than 32 million refugees and internally displaced people across the MENA region are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance due to ongoing armed conflicts. As military campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen escalate, the humanitarian needs of people fleeing violence and of communities recovering from war are enormous. The FY18 budget proposes to slash funding for these accounts when they are needed more than ever.

After Congress granted a new high of bilateral assistance to Tunisia in FY17, the FY18 request reverses course by proposing sharp cuts in aid to the Arab world’s only emerging democracy. In FY17, Congress appropriated $165.4 million in bilateral assistance to Tunisia to support the country’s transition to democracy. But the administration’s FY18 request proposes a 67 percent cut – the largest cut in bilateral aid to any country in the MENA region – by eliminating its FMF grant and halving economic assistance. U.S. investment in Tunisia has shown strong returns, with U.S. aid helping the Tunisian government implement tough economic reforms, improving its ability to counter security threats such as from ISIS, and bolstering the country’s thriving civil society sector.

Read the full report here.