Connolly statement on House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Middle East, North Africa

Gerry ConnollyIn order to match resources to objectives, one has to have objectives. In the Middle East and North Africa, the Trump Administration has none, except to undo every action the Obama Administration took, no matter the impact on U.S. national security interests. President Trump has decimated funding for diplomatic and development programs in the region, withdrawn from the Iran Deal, frozen critical funding needed to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and created a vacuum that our adversaries have eagerly filled in Syria. If the objective is to cede American leadership and threaten U.S. national security, then the President’s FY 2019 budget is right on target.

The Trump Administration’s FY 2019 international affairs budget continues the President’s unilateral retreat from the world, and the Middle East and North Africa region is no exception. The President proposed slashing bilateral aid for the region by 18.1 percent compared to FY 2017. These cuts are particularly acute for humanitarian aid. Since 2011, the United States has provided more than $11 billion to alleviate humanitarian crises stemming from ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet with global displacement at an all-time high, President Trump has proposed cutting global humanitarian assistance by 19 percent.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has deteriorated from bad to worse. In Gaza, 95 percent of the water is unfit for human consumption, more than 53 percent of people live in poverty (up from 38.8 percent in 2011), and 44 percent of people are unemployed (highest rate in the world). President Trump not only proposed cutting bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza by 14 percent, but the Administration has also frozen current funding while it undertakes a vague and undefined “review” of such assistance. If continued, the impact of this freeze could be catastrophic: 140,000 people would cease to receive emergency food and non-food assistance, 42,000 patients would not receive essential health services, 50,000 youths would lack access to life skills development, and 12,250 people would lose paid entrepreneurship opportunities.

This Committee supported my amendment to the Taylor Force Act to protect childhood vaccination programs in the West Bank and Gaza. It must reiterate that concern for the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories by pressing this Administration to provide transparency on the standards and timeline of this ambiguous review. Palestinian lives, Israeli security, and regional stability hang in the balance.

Compounding threats to regional stability, Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) constitutes one of the most sordid and reckless acts by a chief executive of this country. In doing so, he has ejected us from the deal without a parachute. Secretary Pompeo announced a so-called “Plan B” for Iran, conceived as an afterthought and predicated on America’s shattered credibility to reconvene the parties for a “better deal.” The probability of a nuclear Iran has now risen exponentially just when we had it under control. And if that happens, the Saudis have indicated they will pursue a nuclear weapon too. And now we’re off to an arms race in the most volatile part of the world.

In Syria, the Trump Administration’s erratic behavior and lack of a coherent strategy have emboldened President Bashar al-Assad and his patrons Russia and Iran, and endangered U.S. national security interests. Twice in the course of a year, an Administration announcement of retreat from Syria presaged a brutal chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, followed by a kneejerk kinetic response lacking a larger strategy. It should come as no surprise that under President Trump’s leadership or lack thereof, we are no closer to a peaceful negotiated settlement in Syria.

By failing to articulate a strategy or invest in the necessary resources to protect U.S. national security interests in the Middle East and North Africa, the Trump Administration has allowed other parties on the ground to shape regional dynamics to reflect their own interests. This unilateral retreat may very well be the Administration’s objective, but it makes America less safe.

Gerry Connolly represents the 11th House District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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