From her perch as chairwoman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., held a hearing on “America’s Interests in the Middle East and North Africa and the President’s FY2018 Budget Request” on Thursday. Her opening statement is below:
Today we are here to discuss the president’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year 2018 for the Middle East and North Africa region. While I have always been an advocate of being efficient and effective in the use of American taxpayer dollars to fund our foreign assistance programs, I believe we have many good programs that shouldn’t be cut just for the sake of scaling back. To be sure, there has been plenty of waste, fraud and abuse that needs to be addressed, but those should be addressed specifically, not simply by an across the board cut.
But let’s start with some of the positives:
The current request represents $3.1 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) assistance for our closest friend and ally, the democratic Jewish state of Israel. This level is consistent with previous obligations and represents the final year of the previous 10 year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the U.S. and Israel. We need to honor our obligations and guarantee that Israel is able to maintain its Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over its neighbors.
I was also pleased to see that the budget request honors the commitments we have made to our ally, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, under the current MoU between our two countries. Jordan remains a vital partner in the fight against ISIS, and its stability and security are top priorities for the region, for our ally Israel, and for the United States. This will be the final year of the current MoU, and I have authored a bill, alongside Ted, Nita Lowey and Hal Rogers that would authorize a new and expanded MoU for Jordan to ensure the King can keep his country safe, continue fighting ISIS alongside us, and expand his economy. I strongly suggest for State to adequately address Jordan’s economic and security needs as it examines the new MoU – which hopefully will be for 5 years in order to reaffirm our long term commitment to the Hashemite Kingdom.
I’m also happy to see that the request for Egypt’s economic assistance has been reduced; Not because I think Egypt doesn’t need any economic assistance – it does – but because we still have a considerable pipeline of unobligated money in the hundreds of millions of dollars from previous years that we have yet to spend. I see no reason to continue to ask taxpayers to add to that pipeline until we can clear out that backlog – and if that money cannot go out the door in Egypt for whatever reason, then perhaps U.S. interests would be best served if it was reprogrammed elsewhere. And by elsewhere I mean Tunisia.
Which brings us to the bad in this budget request:
First, I am extremely disappointed to see a request for continued assistance for the Palestinian Authority. I know we will hear how none of this money goes directly to the Palestinian Authority, or that a lot of this money actually goes to Israel to pay off PA debt, and that we are doing important humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. But we all know that money is fungible – for every dollar of PA debt to Israel we pay, that frees more funds for Abu Mazen to pay the salaries of terrorists. And it means that, even though we continue to find that the PA and the PLO have not lived up to their obligations, that they continue to incite violence, they continue to support terror, and they continue to work against the interests of the Palestinian people, rather than holding them accountable, we are rewarding them with continued U.S. assistance.
Another disappointment is the budget request for Tunisia. Tunisia has been one of the very few positive developments in the region over the past few years. It is not without problems, but any country going through a transition like Tunisia in an earnest effort to become a democratic society is going to have some hurdles to overcome. Now is not the time to cut and run, now is the time to double down on Tunisia that is at the forefront in combating terrorism as it has to deal with the problem of foreign fighters emanating from Tunisia. This year’s request seriously undermines Tunisia’s economic progress, and it completely cuts out all FMF assistance for a country whose security and stability are vital, especially as it struggles to stay on a path toward democracy. Tunisia is not the only country that lost its FMF assistance under this request – which calls into question the dramatic shift the administration has taken in the FMF program itself.
I hope we hear more about this global FMF fund – which I believe is something like $200 million for everyone – and how the administration plans on distributing that, and its plans for moving to loans rather than grants. I worry this may be a move by the administration to remove the State Department, and therefore the Foreign Affairs Committee, out of the foreign military sales realm by cutting FMF, yet making these countries eligible to receive Defense Department-funded security assistance. And though this is not part of the budget request, this also calls into question the State Department’s role in the Saudi counter-terror center.
And with Secretary Tillerson in the region at the moment, and with the announcement out of the Riyadh Summit, it raises questions regarding the agreements he just signed with Qatar, and how we will fund our commitments. There are so many questions that this budget request conjures up, and I have great concern with many aspects of it and how this budget will promote America’s interests and help bring stability and security to the region.