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The Dangers of Slashing Foreign Aid to the Middle East

July 20, 2017

The Trump administration released their first budget proposal last month, requesting sweeping cuts to many government programs [1]. The cuts included a massive 30 percent cut in the foreign aid budget, slashing funds to the State Department, USAID, and bilateral foreign aid to countries across the world [2]

Aid to the Middle East is not spared in the budget proposal, with the Trump administration requesting cuts of around 850 million USD to the region. The proposal includes severe cuts to military, humanitarian, and development assistance to increasingly unstable countries like Tunisia and Lebanon, and also to devastating crisis areas like Yemen. The proposed budget cuts have the potential to exacerbate conditions in the region, while simultaneously ceding influence to Russia and other actors.

Since the series of uprisings in the region in 2011 and 2012, the Middle East has been plagued by the worst regional turmoil in decades. Major conflicts involving an array of international actors are raging in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, leading to humanitarian crises of historic scale. Most other countries in the region are fighting powerful and evolving insurgencies and terrorist groups, many of them affiliated with the Islamic State. Repressive authoritarian rulers are in control of almost every country in the region, many of them possessing tenuous but brutal grips on power. The situation in the region has continued to deteriorate over the last year, fueled by a quickly intensifying regional proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is in dire straits – and cutting American foreign aid to unstable countries could be disastrous.

Tunisia has often been hailed as the success story of the Arab Spring: the only Arab country in the region that has legitimately moved towards a democratic transition. However, the situation in Tunisia is still fragile at best, as the country’s economic malaise and lack of employment opportunities have led to widespread discontent among the populace, and the Islamic State remains a dangerous threat to the country [3][4]. Despite the precarious nature of the promising democratic transition in Tunisia, the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal requests a cut of around 87 million USD (almost 62 percent) to bilateral aid to the North African nation from 2016 levels. The cuts include zeroing out foreign military financing to Tunisia, which was USD 65 million in 2016, meaning that Tunisia will likely be unable to buy American weapons to deal with the tumultuous internal security situation. If the proposed cuts pass Congress, Tunisia may be forced to turn to other options for military aid – specifically Russia, who has been trying to assert their influence in Tunisia and throughout the region [5]. Budget cuts to other vulnerable countries in dire need of military support like Lebanon would also give Russia an opportunity to continue to expand its influence in the region past Syria. Allowing space for Russia will allow the Kremlin to gain ground in the proxy fight against the United States in the Middle East. Divesting from the region, both in terms of military and developmental aid, will not only increase suffering but will also likely prove to hurt American interests and overall grand strategy.

In addition to damaging the American hegemonic position in the region, the budget proposal includes severe cuts to humanitarian aid and development assistance to some of the countries that need it most. Yemen is on the brink of a devastating famine, largely due to a brutal US-backed Saudi offensive that has killed thousands of civilians [6]. According to the United Nations, in the last two months, more than 200,000 people have contracted cholera and more than a thousand have died – making it the worst cholera outbreak in the world [7]. UN officials stated in May that more than 17 million Yemenis face serious food insecurity, and millions are in desperate need of immediate aid [8]. Despite the desperate situation, the new budget would cut all humanitarian aid to Yemen. The United States gave USD 160 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen in fiscal year 2016. It is true that some American aid has not been delivered to parties in need due to the situation on the ground, but cutting all humanitarian assistance to the country now will only worsen the situation and likely contribute to the deaths of thousands of Yemenis. In addition to humanitarian concerns, cutting aid to Yemen during a famine while the US provides weapons to the Saudi led coalition that has explicitly targeted civilians will further inflame anti-American sentiment and continue to help the al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates that have gained powerful footholds in the war-torn country over the past few years.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a key American ally in the fight against ISIS, will also see non-military assistance to the country cut significantly in the new budget. According to the Jordanian government, the country of fewer than 10 million people has accepted more than a million refugees from Syria, which has threatened to destabilize the country [9]. Despite this, the Trump administration is proposing cutting economic and development support to the country by around 21 percent. Jordan relies heavily on external aid from the United States and the Gulf states to remain solvent during a devastating economic crisis and a multifaceted internal and external threat from the Islamic State, and cutting aid to the small resource-poor country could further destabilize the country.

The budget proposal has been declared by many senators as unlikely to pass, but it is unclear what the final appropriation will look like [10]. Cutting the foreign operations budget by 30 percent during a time of international turmoil may adhere to the administration’s idea of “America First,” but these cuts would ultimately damage the American position in the world and lead to increased conflict and humanitarian strife. Cutting aid to the Middle East is short-sighted, and a 2013 quote from Trump’s own Secretary of Defense James Mattis rings prophetic [11]. Mattis stated to members of Congress that “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” If the proposed cuts to the Middle East account are passed by Congress, the United States will be making an active choice to risk exacerbating the turmoil in the Middle East in exchange for a slight budget cut – and General Mattis may soon have to worry about buying even more ammunition.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.



  [1] Office of Management and Budget. “Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2018.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/budget.pdf (accessed July 11, 2017).

  [2] State Department. “Congressional Budget Justification Fiscal Year 2018: Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.” https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/271013.pdf (accessed July 11, 2017).

  [3] “Protests continue in Tataouine, Tunisia.” Middle East Monitor. May 30, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170530-protests-continue-in-tataouine-tunisia/.

  [4] Nakhle, Carole. “Tunisia’s fragile transition.” Carnegie Middle East Center. February 10, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://carnegie-mec.org/2017/02/10/tunisia-s-fragile-transition-pub-68070.

  [5] Al-Din al-Jorashi, Salah. “Russia on Tunisia’s borders.” Middle East Monitor. March 14, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170314-russia-on-tunisias-borders/.

  [6] Benjamin, Medea. “America will regret helping Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen.” The Guardian. June 19, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/19/america-helping-saudi-arabia-bomb-yemen-consequences.

  [7] “Statement from UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan on the cholera outbreak in Yemen as suspected cases exceed 200,000 [EN/AR].” ReliefWeb. June 24, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/statement-unicef-executive-director-anthony-lake-and-who-director-general-margaret-chan.

  [8] Gladstone, Rick. “Cholera, Famine and Girls Sold Into Marriage for Food: Yemen’s Dire Picture.” The New York Times. May 30, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/30/world/middleeast/yemen-civil-war-

  [9] Ghazal, Mohammad . “Jordan hosts 657,000 registered Syrian refugees.” Jordan Times. March 21, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/jordan-hosts-657000-registered-syrian-refugees.

  [10] Carney, Jordain. “GOP senators knock Trump’s budget proposal.” The Hill. May 23, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://thehill.com/policy/finance/334757-gop-senators-knock-trumps-budget-proposal.

  [11] Lockie, Alex. “Mattis once said if State Department funding gets cut ‘then I need to buy more ammunition’.” Business Insider. February 27, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/mattis-state-department-funding-need-to-buy-more-ammunition-2017-2.


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