America First – Questioning Foreign Aid to the Middle East

By Yara Mansour:

Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy penned a letter to Obama recently, urging the President not to condone international investment in Iran, after a decision enabled Airbus to license more commercial airlines for Iran’s commercial airline industry. It is these investments and their long-term impact that has been the focal point of Republican contenders, referencing that such economic stimulus would certainly empower Iran’s military and stature and threaten Israel. The point of contention is what makes all the difference between an Obama administration and a future Trump administration: economic foreign diplomacy.

Pulling troops out of the Middle East and ending military presence is one endeavor that President-elect Trump has, of late, addressed, but easing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from economic kickbacks, lifted sanctions, grants, security apparatus collaborations, or development agreements may be much more difficult to coordinate. These economic stimuli have become intertwined with social and political dynamics in some of the most crucial regions of the world—with heavy investment and American economic presence heavily impacting places like Kurdistan to as far as Morocco. The pattern of commercial investment, cyber investment, and capacity building, while economic in spirit, was seemingly favored by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as opposed to immediate military intervention under Bush. Indeed it was a Bush administration that funded projects like the massive military base in Kuwait and thousands of soldiers and weaponry in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether military investments or civil investments are more effective is debatable, but the cost in American lives has spared the US tremendously and encouraged reform in countries historically considered violently anti-American. And the purpose of these missions is not to wage war, but to change an entire region’s mentality and align it with a pro-U.S. agenda.

When determining a foreign policy strategy, Trump has reiterated how giving the United States has been while at the same time receiving diminished returns. That is the spirit by which Trump’s foreign policy should be understood—not in the literal sense by which the media has interpreted his position towards Iran, the border with Mexico, or even its duty to Israel, but point blank and shooting at the hip—Trump is saying, we should get more in return.

Specifically speaking of Israel, which has enjoyed heavy investments, billions from Congress, and unilateral support from the U.S., the Israeli press has been in a frenzy since Trump began to campaign. Their basis: they do not know what incentives Trump wants from the world’s first Silicon Valley and key military strategic location when he has never completed a business project in the region.

During the AIPAC conference he very clearly stated, “Deals are made when parties come together, they come to a table and they negotiate. Each side must give up something. It’s values. I mean, we have to do something where there’s value in exchange for something that it requires. That’s what a deal is.”

Yet, Trump must be wary of the complexities of the world’s most turbulent regions. That is what Hillary Clinton recognized—and she used this complexity to her advantage. Walid Phares, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, was himself involved in the bloodbath that drowned Palestinians during the Lebanese civil war in a series of massacres that targeted Palestinian refugees. His inclusion in Trump’s circle is irreverent of the war crimes to which he has contributed.

Phares, a Christian Maronite Lebanese American, and to some, a militant Maronite suspected of coordinating the massacre of Palestinian refugees during Lebanon’s civil war, is far removed from anything Islamic and fully aware of these complexities. Now comfortably situated in the circle of Trump, Phares has clarified Trump’s position towards Iran.

In an interview with the BBC he stated that Trump, “will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore few issues or change few issues, and there will be a discussion. It could be a tense discussion but the agreement as is right now—$750 billion to the Iranian regime without receiving much in return and increasing intervention in four countries—that is not going to be accepted by a Trump administration.”

As the United States prepares itself for its new president, it must also re-examine where perhaps another country has received without the US “receiving much in return.” This is the plain definition of a Trump administration’s foreign diplomacy. It is difficult to ascertain what exactly its position will be when the campaign season was characterized with antics befit for television and Broadway.

The organized effort to align the Middle East to the U.S began with President Bush under a program called MEPI, still intact and heavily used under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Middle East Partnership Initiative is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and it is through MEPI actual foreign civilians are mobilized and employed according to the program objectives MEPI may have set. In determining the extent of Trump’s reexamination of foreign policy and its complementary economic framework, it is imperative that the funding and initiatives condoned by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton be heavily scrutinized.

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has also been another means for the “American people to invest in the resilience and prosperity of the Middle East and North Africa,” an international development agency that came into being under JFK and the passing of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  While JFK at the time mentioned that it was a moral duty to serve as a good neighbor and member to the international community, the ultimate purpose of USAID was to influence poor countries that were susceptible to communist influence. This is still very much the case, as a leaked document from Clinton’s emails has revealed Russia was not supportive of the U.S. mission in Syria to encourage civilian unrest and ultimately topple Bashar al Assad in efforts to destabilize Iran.

With MEPI acting as a direct USAID funnel, specific MENA countries were encouraged to participate, and as the pull out of military ensued from Iraq, the need for another influence gave way to MEPI and USAID. It began in 2002 at the conclusion of the second Palestinian intifada that USAID heavily invested in every capacity project imaginable ranging from school curriculum, hospital equipment, or roads—with the Palestinian territory serving as a litmus test to the impact of economic influence by the US. Indeed, it was during this time jobs soared for Palestinians, capacity building projects by the millions were awarded to local NGOs, and essentially the US had demonstrated its ability to leverage civilian NGOs against the Palestinian Authority, creating a check and balance system that would ultimately lead to a warm welcome of President Obama in 2010.

In 2010 President Obama commissioned a secret report to study the triggers of the Middle East—and coincidentally, the classified report considered Egypt the anchor of the region, and Obama positioned his response to the mounting demonstrations in light of this report. In fact it was Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA, who testified before Congress to reveal the study focused primarily on triggers. The study essentially pinpointed that throughout the region, it was a surmounting youth population, basic education systems, limited economies, and poor access to social media that dominated the entire MENA region.

In reflecting on MEPI under Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and USAID—a variety of efforts went in with calls for funding to address all of these attributes. In 2011, the International Monetary Fund made a plea for “inclusive growth” and investment to boost economies. Billions in loan forgiveness and funding opportunities became available to Egypt—and aware of this influence, the USAID office was attacked early on during the Arab Spring in Egypt.

In 2006 came a series of call for proposals for “democracy building” in Syria. This proposal also called to fund Syrian politicians, and a leaked document from the Bush administration noted that “elections are a galvanizing” topic and as the Arab Spring surged during Obama’s years, surely certain parties were funded in different Arab countries—Syria included, where in 2001 a leaked document from the U.S. State Department discussed toppling Syria for the sake of Israel and develop a “common view” with Iran’s people.

To this end in 2014, Congress in an overwhelming show of solidarity across party lines voted to support funding of “rebel Syrians.” Only ten democrats and twelve republicans in the Senate opposed the measure. The plan to train and arm rebels, the nondescript group that has caused outcry, became reality. In 2015 the House tried to stop the funding of rebel groups with an amendment with support from both Democrats and Republicans and a majority opposition that was shared by both parties. Not only did it address Syria, the funding of American allies in the “fight against Isis,” but also funding that essentially covered the scope of MEPI.

The plan, a $500 million dollar grant to train and arm Syrian rebels, comes from $5 billion allocated to counterterrorism that comes in addition to $1.5 billion for Syria’s neighbors who have taken on Syrian refugees and continue to secure their borders. Yet this funding also collides with its emphasis on Jordan as a center to train Syrian rebels and in turn, condone an environment conducive to future democracy. With Jordan being one of the largest recipients of USAID funding, Obama has assured that these funds are used to mold the Syrian refugee population in Jordan into a positive asset for both themselves and the Middle East.  Obama stated that Jordan “will have a strong partner in the United States and we will make sure that our money is where our mouth is.”

Trump has attacked the notion of funding being sent out of the US based on little returns, and much of the opposition to funding foreign leaders, rebellions, and the civil society the US has envisioned for these regions.

“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy,” Trump said. In short, Trump’s reexamination of foreign policy and, in turn, his attack on the Bush family and their hold of foreign affairs by USAID’s and MEPIs plans still intact via Hillary Clinton, has emphasized the need to reexamine US foreign strategy. This will ultimately lead to a squaring off with Russia. Lt. General Michael T. Flynn has echoed the sentiment of funding civil society of foreign governments as well, calling into question why the US is funding Turkey’s schools.

In what may become known as the “America-First” doctrine under Trump, direct policy making rather than humanitarian-based influence, will potentially challenge the friendly relationship USAID has enjoyed with Congress, coming at a time it seems, when foreign aid becomes the most critical issue that Congress will have to examine this coming year.

Yara Mansour is an OpsLens Contributor 

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