First Published: 2017-07-17

Why Cutting US Assistance to Tunisia is a Mistake
The United States cannot succeed if it abandons much-needed support to allies, particularly those in the Middle East and North Africa, says Elissa Miller.
Middle East Online

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released the fiscal year 2018 budget request for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development in May. The budget request is framed within US President Donald Trumps America First mantra and outlines several priorities, most important of which are defending US national security and asserting US leadership and influence.

However, in foreseeing significant cuts in foreign assistance to US partners in the Middle East, this budget request fails to meet the stated priorities. In particular, Trumps decision to cut aid to Tunisia is shortsighted and will do more harm than good for US national security interests.

The 2018 budget request includes an almost 70% cut in assistance to Tunisia. Bilateral US assistance would fall from approximately $177 million in fiscal year 2016 to $54.5 million. US military assistance to Tunisia would face the steepest cuts, as the administration is reportedly planning to adjust military assistance to several countries, including Tunisia, from a grant to a loan.

This would complicate assistance to Tunisia, as there is no guarantee should the North African country decide to accept the loan that it would be able to pay back the funds.

In highlighting US national security as a major priority, the budget request emphasises Trumps commitment to defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and other transnational terror groups, countering illegal trafficking, ceasing the drivers of instability and irregular migration and bolstering key US allies to defend shared interests. The cuts in foreign assistance to Tunisia imperil all these goals.

Tunisia is frequently referred to as the success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings. However, the country remains in a fragile transition phase and is particularly susceptible to the threats that this budget ostensibly aims to address.

Cutting military assistance to Tunisia and converting aid from a grant to a loan will not help Tunisia address shared threats, particularly those from ISIS militants in Libya and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While ISIS was ousted from its hold on the Libyan city of Sirte last year, the group continues to pose a threat to the West as evidenced by the Manchester bombing in May. It is likely that some of the groups fighters will seek to cross into Tunisia. Indeed, Tunisia has previously been beset by attacks from militants crossing from Libya.

Tunisia remains one of the largest exporters of foreign fighters. The Berlin attack in late 2016 by a Tunisian demonstrates the threat that ISIS and other militant groups pose in their efforts to radicalise discontented Tunisians. Tunisia is also a transit country for irregular migration from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Countering migration in these transit countries and at its source is critical, even more so than addressing the migrant crisis once it hits Europes shores.

The reduction in aid to Tunisia also fails to meet this budgets goal of restoring US leadership and influence. The Trump administration seeks to reduce its commitments to allies abroad in anticipation that allied nations will provide a more equitable cost-share. However, in turning its back on Tunisia, which became a major non-NATO ally under President Barack Obama in 2015, this budget would abandon US leadership at a time when it is desperately needed. Tunisia faces slow growth, high rates of unemployment and surging public and external debts.

In 2016, the International Monetary Fund approved a four-year, $2.9 billion loan for Tunisia. However Tunisian authorities have been slow to enact needed reforms. Targeted US assistance could play a key role in maintaining support for Tunisia while pushing for the adoption of difficult macroeconomic reforms.

The status quo will not be sustainable for long as recent protests in the country demonstrate. A strategy that better targets US assistance, rather than slashing it, and works in concert with European partners that are supporting Tunisias economic and democratic transitions would do much more to bolster US credibility and leadership.

A recent survey of State Department employees indicated concern regarding the Trump administration and Tillersons leadership. The survey indicated that State Department employees question whether the administration understands the role that the State Department plays in forwarding the interests of the United States in the world.

The 2018 budget request suggests that this administration fails to acknowledge the crucial role that US assistance plays in supporting key allies across the world.

The Trump administration aims to put America first. However, the United States cannot succeed if it abandons much-needed support to allies, particularly those in the Middle East and North Africa that are on the front lines facing major global threats.

Cutting support to Tunisia is a misguided decision that will hurt, rather than benefit, US national security interests in the long term.

Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Atlantic Councils Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Copyright 2017 The Arab Weekly

 

10 killed in Toronto “deliberate” van attack

Yemen Huthi political leader killed in coalition raid

Rouhani warns Trump against betraying nuclear deal

Saudi king to launch 'entertainment city'

Can Arab satellite TV catch up with social media?

Nine people killed in Toronto van attack

Syria security chief refuses Lebanon court appearance

Air raid kills dozens at Yemen wedding

Algeria draws Europe’s ire by cutting imports, boosting trade with China

Russia says no decision yet on delivery of S-300 missiles to Syria

French MPs adopt controversial immigration bill

Qatar Airways ‘robust’ despite large losses

IS threatens to attack Iraqi polling station

Jordan sounds the alarm over rising online crimes

Yemen forces clash with jihadists in Taez

Paris attacks suspect gets 20 years over Brussels shootout

Jailed Egyptian photographer wins UN press freedom prize

14 Saddam-era officials still jailed in Iraq

Gaza death toll rises to 40 as Palestinian dies of wounds

HRW says African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen

Four British pilgrims killed in Saudi road crash

HRW warns Egypt fight against IS threatens humanitarian crisis

Iran, Israel trade blame for surge in hostilities over Syria

Iran vows to resume enrichment if US quits nuclear deal

UAE accuses Qatari jets of ‘chasing’ passenger flight

Israel rubbishes claims Mossad behind Malaysia assassination

Syrian refugees are not going home anytime soon

Resumption of direct flights from Moscow brings hope to Egypt’s tourism sector

Saudi finalises drone regulation after security alarm

Will Lebanon have more women MPs after May 6 poll?

Saudi shoots down ‘toy drone’

Mass grave discovered under Raqa football pitch

UN Security Council meets over Syria in Sweden

Turkish government rejects criticism of election campaign

Condemnation after Gaza teenager killed by Israeli soldiers

Syrian rebels agree to leave new area outside Damascus

Rouhani slams officials' 'vow of silence' in face of protests

Family accuses Israel of killing Palestinian in Malaysia

Natalie Portman says backed out of Israel prize over Netanyahu

Morocco, EU start talks on new fisheries deal

FIFA to return to Morocco to check hotels, stadiums

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy