President Donald Trump often professes antipathy toward U.S. foreign aid, with perhaps his harshest rhetoric directed at spending for the Middle East and North Africa. While wildly exaggerating past U.S. foreign assistance to this region (7 trillion over the last 19 years), Trump has asserted that America has nothing to show for its largesse and declared the whole thing is just like a total disaster.” 

Thus it comes as no surprise that, as a new POMED report describes, for the third year in a row, Trump wants Congress to slash foreign aid for MENA. Trump’s proposed federal budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, delivered to the Hill in March, includes $6.6 billion for MENA, which is 6 percent, or $423 million, less than his FY19 request, and $700 million less than what President Obama requested for MENA in his last foreign aid budget, for FY17. (Trump is also calling for a 21.3 percent cut to the overall international affairs budget, which funds all foreign aid accounts as well as operating costs for the State Department and USAID, from the enacted FY19 level.) 

Yet, given Trump’s disparagement of MENA aid and his recent description of the region as a “vicious, hostile place,” it is notable that he has not proposed a larger cut. Indeed, as the POMED report explains, for FY20 the Trump administration still wants MENA to get more aid dollars than any other region—nearly a quarter of the president’s entire global foreign assistance request of $28.9 billion

This is because Trump does not want any cuts to the “big three” legacy aid programs—Israel (a proposed $3.3 billion for FY20), Egypt ($1.4 billion) and Jordan ($1.3 billion). These three rank, respectively, as the Trump administration’s first, second, and third-largest aid requests worldwide, and together represent a whopping 90 percent of Trump’s entire MENA assistance budget for FY20. In this area, at least, Trump’s foreign policy represents not disruption but continuity. His predecessors going back decades similarly asked Congress for, and received, massive bilateral assistance packages for these three MENA allies, funding for which has long dwarfed U.S. foreign aid programs elsewhere. 

So what does the Trump administration want to cut? As the POMED report outlines, bilateral aid for other MENA countries, as well as for some regional aid programs, is on its chopping block. 

Trump’s biggest proposed reduction is for Syria, for which he has requested no bilateral aid for FY20—zero. Last year, Trump proposed $174.5 million in bilateral assistance for the war-ravaged country, to continue stabilization, reconstruction, security, democracy and governance, and economic development programs launched during the Obama administration. Later in 2018however, Trump declared he wanted U.S. aid terminated, and U.S. troops withdrawn from Syria. In Trump’s FY20 budget, some funding could potentially flow to Syria in the form of humanitarian aid through other, multilateral accounts. But Trump wants to slash the humanitarian aid budget, too, by a whopping 34 percent, and it is unclear how much of his desired smaller pot would be directed for Syria. 

Second on Trump’s hit list is the West Bank and GazaThere, Trump seeks to end the very robust annual U.S. aid appropriated since the mid-1990s. He apparently wants to punish the Palestinian leadership for rejecting his pro-Israel moves regarding the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and other sensitive core issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Accordingly, last year the Trump administration suspended nearly all unspent prior-year aid for the West Bank and Gaza, and in 2019 redirected it for other purposes and dramatically shrunk staffing at the USAID Mission. For FY20 aid, Trump has asked Congress to appropriate just $35 million for the West Bank, to be used only for Palestinian law enforcement training. His budget, if enacted, would end all U.S. economic development, educational, health, and governance projects for the Palestinians. (In contrast, under Obama, bilateral aid for the Palestinian Authority reached nearly half a billion dollars in some years.) 

The rest of Trump’s proposed $423 million FY20 cut would come out of the following bilateral programs:

  • Iraq aid would be slashed by $34 million, from $200 million in the FY19 request.
  • Lebanon aid would be reduced to $133 million, down from Trump’s request of $153 million last year.
  • Aid for Tunisia, the Arab world’s only democratizing country, would shrink to $86 million, down by $8.1 million from Trump’s FY19 request.
  • Yemen, like Syria mired in a horrible civil war and facing humanitarian catastrophe, would receive $41 million, $2.4 million less in bilateral aid than Trump asked for last year.
  • Trump’s budget requests $21.8 million for Libya, compared to his FY19 request of $34.5 million.
  • Bahrain’s small bilateral aid package would be cut further, to $400,000. 

Trump also wants to slash some regional aid programs. He has proposed a $5 million cut, to $14.5 million, for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). In fact, the decline in funding for MEPI, a program launched by President George W. Bush to promote Arab political and economic reform, started under Obama. By the end of the Obama administration, the administration’s MEPI ask was $60 million, down from a peak of $150 million in FY05; in FY17, Congress appropriated $50.9 million. But Trump’s proposed FY20 funding for MEPI marks a much steeper drop. And Trump wants to zero out funds for the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (he requested $4 million in FY19) as well as for the Middle East Multilaterals

Interestingly, alongside these cuts, Trump’s FY20 budget requests slight increases for certain MENA regional programs and countries. Trump has proposed $40 million for the Near East Regional Democracy (NERD) program, which supports democracy promotion in Iran—a $25 million boost over his FY19 request. His budget also includes $30 million for USAID’s Middle East Regional funding, $25 million more than last year’s request. The similarly named “Near East Regional” program, managed by the State Department, would get a $2 million increase. Bilateral aid for Oman would rise to $3.4 million, up from Trump’s $2.5 million request last year. Bilateral aid for Algeria, currently undergoing a political transition after mass pro-democracy protests this spring, would get a modest increase, to $2 million. (Notably, the Trump administration has not explained to Congress exactly how it would use all these additional funds. As POMED’s report mentions, the administration has departed from past practice by providing Congress few—and in some cases no—details to justify its priorities and planned projects.) 

Of course, no matter what Trump wants for foreign aid, the U.S. Constitution makes Congress, not the president, the decision-maker on federal appropriations. And, since Trump took office, Congress has rejected his proposed cuts for MENA (and elsewhere). For FY18, for example, the final enacted level of $7.4 billion for MENA was $800 million over Trump’s request that year, and included boosts for programs and countries, such as Tunisia, where the administration had sought significant reductions. 

Congress is likely to protect foreign aid in this appropriation cycle, too. Immediately after receiving Trump’s proposed FY20 budget, Congress signaled that it again intends to fund foreign aid at the level that it deems appropriate, which is significantly beyond the administration’s proposal. Expressing bipartisan, and bicameral, Hill sentiment on this issue, Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a leading Trump ally, bluntly stated, “we are not going to approve this budget,” which he described as “insane.” POMED’s report discusses how Congress is expected to respond to Trump’s FY20 MENA aid request, including what the recent House bill markup signals. 

Even with Congress’s anticipated rejection, it is worthwhile to look closely at Trump’s foreign aid ask. As my POMED colleagues explain,

In spite of the seemingly arbitrary nature of President Trump’s approach to the foreign assistance budget, there is still value in analyzing his requests. The administration’s request reveals its priorities. Comparing requests year-on-year can help to elucidate changes in the administration’s priorities over time. Comparisons between the President’s request and Congress’s appropriations, moreover, highlight important policy differences between the executive and legislative branches.

Read the report for more details, analysis, and insights.

Photo credit: Shealah Craighead/Official White House Flickr