From her perch as chairwoman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., held a hearing on Wednesday on Assessing President Obama’s Middle East and North Africa FY 2017 Budget Request.” Her opening statement is below:
We’re here today to discuss the president’s FY17 budget request for the Middle East and North Africa region.
I fully support the request to honor the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding –MoU – with our closest ally, the democratic Jewish state of Israel, and helping to ensure that she has what she needs to defend herself and her citizens. In the aftermath of the weak and dangerous Iran nuclear deal and the corresponding race to arms by many of the nations in the region that feel threatened by a newly empowered Iran, Israel is facing a new dangerous environment so it is critical that we ensure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is intact and vigorously enforced as our policy stipulates and as our law states. So I strongly urge the administration to conclude the negotiations on a new, robust MoU with Israel in an expeditious manner and in a way that reflects the new reality the Jewish state faces in the region.
I am also pleased to see that the administration is following through with the additional support for Jordan, as agreed upon in last year’s MoU, with a billion dollars to help the kingdom cope with the strain on its resources from the Syrian humanitarian crisis and the influx of refugees, as well as help provide Jordan with the tools that it needs to continue to fight on the front lines against ISIS.
However, this request for Jordan highlights one of the most noteworthy trends of the current request which is the administration’s continued shift to move a significant amount of assistance from the regular foreign affairs budget to the Overseas Contingency Operations – OCO – account. Nearly half of this year’s budget request is OCO funds: $3.5 billion of the $7.1 billion for the Middle East and North Africa in non-humanitarian bilateral aid. That’s over 100 percent more than last year’s request – with almost all of the $1 billion for Jordan coming in OCO. This is a troubling trend that the administration needs to explain in greater detail, as we are seeing funds that should be in the base budget that are being shifted into the OCO fund.
Tunisia is strategically important and this is where the democratic transition has been referred to by the administration as a model for other states in the Arab world. However, when compared to Egypt, Jordan or even Lebanon, our aid package to Tunisia does not really indicate that the administration views its future as a high priority. The people and government of Tunisia need us now more than ever. While this year’s request may represent an increase, foreign military financing assistance for Tunisia’s security accounts for $45 million, while slightly more than that is being provided for democracy and governance and economic assistance. Tunisia is facing some trying times at the moment, and we want to support it and ensure that it remains on the transition toward democracy, yet the administration does not appear to be making a successful transition a priority in this request.
While Lebanon may be facing significant problems as a result of the Syrian conflict, it has been mired in a political crisis for nearly two years and has no elected leader and concerns remain over Hezbollah and Iran’s increasing influence in Lebanon. This raises questions over how our assistance to Lebanon is being used to advance our interests. The same can be said over continued assistance requests for Libya or Yemen, two other countries in dire political straits.
When it comes to strategic interests in the region, Egypt remains near the top. Egypt’s security and stability are key U.S. national security interests, which is why we continue to provide Cairo with the foreign military financing assistance it needs and we will continue to work with Egypt to tackle the terrorist threats in the Sinai. Yet, in Egypt we are facing a significant pipeline issue where between $500 to $700 million dollars in previous years’ funds have not been spent nor obligated. Yet, the administration continues to request $150 million in ESF for Egypt, without presenting a concrete plan on how it will spend these unobligated funds and without having the flexibility to operate in Egypt that we once had.
When we discuss using our assistance as effectively and efficiently as possible, we have to talk about our response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. The United States has been the single largest donor in response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis by providing over $5 billion dollars – and we’ll continue to do what we can - but our policies to get at the root cause of the problem have failed and Assad still remains in power. With most of this assistance being funneled through the UN, it raises questions about whether or not we are maximizing our assistance in this humanitarian response.
But when talking about using our assistance effectively in furtherance of our interests, perhaps the most egregious failure of this budget request is the continued request by the administration for hundreds of millions in assistance for the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen have continued to incite violence against Israel, have continued to support terrorism, and have continued to fund the salaries of terrorists in Israeli prisons, as well as their family members. And the Palestinians continue to seek to delegitimize the Jewish state at the United Nations and are moving forward with plans to undermine the peace process by seeking unilateral statehood. The administration may argue that it has sought less for the Palestinian Authority in this year’s budget request, but we should have cut off all assistance to the PA for violating several provisions of U.S. law.
So I welcome our distinguished guests, I look forward to hearing from the administration its justifications for its budget requests, and how those line up with the administration’s objectives for the coming year in the Middle East and North Africa.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was first elected to Congress in 1989.