The Trump administration recently announced, in a cascade of shortsighted decisions, that it will cut at least $700 million in aid to Syria and to the West Bank and Gaza, some of which had been suspended earlier this year. The initial suspension had already caused damage, paralyzing U.S. programming for months, to the detriment of beleaguered Syrians and Palestinians. Permanently cutting U.S. assistance to these unstable territories will only compound the harm to U.S. interests by adding fuel to the fire of ongoing and potential conflicts, undermining the U.S. ability to shape developments, and ultimately weakening U.S. influence in the region.
Under the administration’s plans, bilateral U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza will be cut by more than $200 million. The funds originally had been suspended in late January in response to the Palestinians’ refusal to participate in U.S.-mediated peace negotiations, after President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
According to U.S. government officials interviewed for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s annual report on the president’s foreign affairs budget, over $400 million of non-security assistance in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 and 2018 and close to $100 million in security assistance from the same period were frozen. This is in addition to the $300 million cut in funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides a wide array of services to over 5 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring countries. Leaked emails authored by Jared Kushner show that the administration is taking deliberate actions to eventually eliminate UNRWA as part of a larger, misguided strategy to remove the Palestinian refugee issue — like it “removed” Jerusalem — from peace negotiations.
The folly of this approach is evident. Despite recent mediation efforts led by the U.N. and Egypt, the risk of another war in Gaza continues to grow, driven in part by the territory’s deplorable economic conditions. With unemployment above 40 percent and residents limited to four hours of electricity per day, not providing these funds threatens to further erode living conditions in Gaza. Already the hold on UNRWA funds has forced the agency to announce significant layoffs and severe cuts to its operations.
Israel, Congress Express Concern
Israeli defense officials understand the link between Gaza’s economy and the risk of war, and have expressed concern that U.S. cuts will only threaten Israel’s security. The U.S. Congress has likewise sent multiple letters to the Trump administration, urging officials to release funds intended for the Palestinians. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office confirmed this month that the aid advances U.S. interests, something Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy for international negotiations, affirmed in his praise for USAID’s work just months before the aid was initially suspended.
Meanwhile, in March, Trump froze $200 million in assistance to Syria after then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly pledged that amount to assist in the country’s post-conflict stabilization. Trump’s decision to freeze the aid came shortly after he declared that the United States would be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”
After a public uproar, the administration subsequently released $6.6 million for the celebrated White Helmets and a few other groups. The vast majority of U.S. assistance to Syria had remained in limbo, however, leading to hundreds of Syrian employees of U.S.-supported groups being laid off. And, the administration’s recent decision to cut more than $200 million in stabilization assistance means the Syrian people may never see this money.
Ironically, the State Department appears to understand the importance of funding to liberated areas of Syria. In applauding a Saudi contribution, the department noted that “stabilization and early recovery programming is critical to ensure ISIS cannot reemerge and use Syria as a base to threaten the people of the region or plot attacks against the international community.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even appointed former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey just last month as his representative for Syria engagement, where he is expected to focus on international diplomacy efforts.
Regrettably, however, the State Department also thinks that the $300 million pledged by U.S. allies to Syria, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia, eliminates Syria’s need for U.S. assistance. With the U.N. estimating that the costs of rebuilding Syria will exceed $250 billion, it is obvious that the country could use every penny, including the $200 million the administration is returning to Congress.
It is hard to reconcile the apparent desire to reinvigorate a diplomatic track in Syria that Jeffrey’s appointment signals with declining U.S. engagement on other aspects of the conflict, including reconstruction and stabilization. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently noted, providing stabilization funds to Syria “gives us leverage” to pursue U.S. interests in the country. By cutting this aid, the administration is forfeiting such leverage right when the U.S. will need it to influence the direction of post-civil war Syria.
Return on Investment
Ultimately, Trump’s determination to gut aid to Syria and the West Bank and Gaza is based on a simple but deeply mistaken premise: U.S. aid to the Middle East and North Africa is a colossal waste of American taxpayer money. In Trump’s view, the last two U.S. administrations have squandered billions of dollars in an ill-fated effort to remake a “troubled” region that is and will remain convulsed by ancient hatreds. As he told a political rally in Michigan in April, “We have spent $7 trillion — trillion with a T — $7 trillion in the Middle East. You know what we have for it? Nothing. Nothing.” For the president, foreign assistance, like so much else, is a transactional enterprise. If the U.S. does not get an immediate return on an investment of foreign aid, it should be discontinued.
In reality, cutting aid to the broader Middle East will do little to reduce the American taxpayer’s investment in the region. Yes, the U.S. has spent an obscene amount of money in the Middle East over the last 20 years. But most of this spending has paid for Department of Defense military operations, not State Department or USAID-administered aid packages. U.S. bilateral and multilateral assistance – 73 percent of which in any case is for security assistance, such as weapons and training – represents a small fraction of total U.S. spending in the Middle East. As just one example, the U.S. has obligated $3.4 billion in humanitarian and development assistance to Syria since FY14 compared to the $17.1 billion the Defense Department spent on the counter-ISIS operation over that span.
Trump is not wrong to question the efficacy of certain U.S. assistance programs in the region. As one of the authors has argued, the annual $1.3 billion military assistance package the U.S. provides to Egypt has largely failed to improve Egyptian military capabilities or to elicit Egyptian support for U.S. initiatives; a reduction of $300-500 million is long overdue. And an argument can be made that the United States is overcommitted in the Middle East, as Asia increasingly becomes the primary theater for global competition.
But, instead of proposing cuts to aid for Egypt and re-evaluating assistance to the Middle East as a whole, the administration has targeted two assistance programs that are of undeniable importance to U.S. interests. Reconstruction and stabilization operations in areas of Syria liberated from ISIS are critical to preventing the group’s resurgence, as the State Department admits.
Likewise, the last three wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza were driven in part by deteriorating economic conditions in the crowded and isolated territory. While we should be careful not to overstate the potential impact of several hundred million dollars in assistance, it is hard to see how diverting such aid benefits U.S. equities in the region.
The Middle East is in the throes of radical changes and, with it, U.S. interests have evolved. It is thus not unreasonable to seek to recalibrate the U.S. investment in the region. But, the administration will neither save taxpayer money nor put American interests first by selectively targeting civilian assistance programs to Syria and the West Bank and Gaza.
If Trump is genuinely interested in rationalizing the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, he should order a systematic and comprehensive review of assistance to the region as a whole that includes all countries and all forms of U.S. investment — civilian and military.
While the Trump administration may not heed our advice, it is not too late for Congress to curb the administration’s ability to implement these funding cuts. The Senate can make use of its statutory authorities to impede Trump’s foreign policy agenda until his administration rescinds these proposed cuts by, for instance, withholding approval of high-level diplomatic appointments. Indeed, any proposal to reprogram funding for Syria and the West Bank for other purposes will have to be notified to Congress, which can at the very least temporarily block the moves using a Senate “hold.”
In the future, Congress can and should make it more difficult for the administration to cut funding to Syria and the West Bank and Gaza by establishing earmarks for spending to these territories in subsequent appropriations bills, beginning with FY19. And Congress could always elect to increase funding for these territories in new appropriations bills to offset the administration’s deductions. Trump is playing a dangerous and shortsighted game by cutting this funding. Before irreparable damage is done, Congress should make it loud and clear that it will not stand for the wanton gutting of U.S. foreign assistance.