Trump threat to cut US aid: Deterrent or hot air?

23Dec 2017
The Guardian
Trump threat to cut US aid: Deterrent or hot air?

Despite exerting unparalleled pressure on UN member states, the US could not stave off a General Assembly vote on Thursday, condemning Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The UNGA passed the draft resolution - which declared the Jerusalem decision to be "null and void" - by an overwhelming margin, with 128 states voting in favour and nine against, with 35 abstentions.

The results came after days of threats from the US delegation to the United Nations and from Trump himself, who said earlier in the week that he would consider cutting funding to any country that voted against the US.

"They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us. Well, we're watching those votes," Trump told reporters on Wednesday.

Speaking before the General Assembly vote, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said that as the largest donor to the international body, the US had "a legitimate expectation" that its goodwill would be "recognised and respected".

"When a nation is singled out for attack in this organisation, that nation is disrespected. What's more, that nation is asked to pay for the privilege of being disrespected. In the case of the US, we are asked to pay more than anyone else for that dubious privilege," Haley said.

"If our investment fails, we have an obligation to spend our resources in more productive ways."

Aid for influence

Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, reporting from UN headquarters in New York after the vote, said while the results were "a very strong response" to the Trump administration's threats, the high number of abstentions came as a surprise.

Thirty-five countries abstained from the vote, including Canada, Mexico, Rwanda and Uganda.

Meanwhile, Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo voted against the resolution, alongside the US and Israel.

"The campaign waged by the United States in preceding days ... may well have produced this increase in the number of abstentions, and certainly led to at least one or two of those votes agai But Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan, has questioned whether Trump's threat truly had an effect on the results.

"The US doesn't give out much aid, and therefore can't hold it over the heads of many other countries. The aid it does give out is for establishing US influence," Cole wrote on his blog, Informed Comment, ahead of Thursday's vote.

Cole said punishing countries like Egypt, which voted in favour of the General Assembly draft resolution and sponsored an earlier motion at the UN Security Council to condemn the US' Jerusalem decision, "would likely simply diminish US standing at the UN and with the countries it woos by charity".

It would also harm US companies since a large amount of US aid comes in the forms of American-made military equipment, Cole wrote.

"The Egyptian government has more military helicopters than it knows what to do with, and they're just stacked in warehouses. So the money actually went to US arms manufacturers, and Egypt gets a fairly useless shiny military toy. Trump would be hurting US corporations more than Egypt if he cut it off."

Without US influence in the form of foreign aid, countries like China and Russia might step in, he added.

"I very much doubt anyone will pay attention to Trump's threats."

Types of US aid

In 2015, broadly defined US foreign assistance totalled approximately $58.6bn and amounted to 1.3 percent of the total federal budget, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Nearly half of that year's aid (43 percent) went to bilateral economic development programmes, 35 percent went to military aid and other security assistance, 16 percent was earmarked for humanitarian programmes and six percent went to support multilateral institutions, the report found.

But since taking office last January, the Trump administration has made a concerted effort to slash US foreign aid spending.

In March, in line with the president's "America First" mantra, the administration announced plans to slash foreign aid by 28 percent for 2018, according to a White House budget document.

The US said it intended to give the Department of State and USAID, the main agency that administers US assistance funding, $25.6bn to distribute for the year, the document states.

The president's proposed cuts incited pushback from US lawmakers and other officials, however.

More than 120 retired US generals and admirals penned an open letter last February, urging Washington not to cut funds for diplomacy and foreign aid. In April, more than three dozen US Senators, including a few Republicans, said any cuts to foreign assistance were "counterproductive".

Ultimately, the US has budgeted to spend $25.8bn on foreign aid next year, according to a federal government website that tracks US spending, FederalAssistance.gov.

Washington plans to give Israel $3.1bn for 2018, making it the largest recipient of US aid, followed by Egypt ($1.38bn) and Jordan ($1bn).

But a large portion of US aid comes in the form of what is called Foreign Military Financing (FMF), or the ability to purchase US-made weapons, military services or defence training. FMF may be administered as a loan or a grant.

All $3.1bn the US intends to give Israel next year will be in the form of FMF, for example.

By contrast, the amount of US aid requested for 2018 for the West Bank and Gaza Strip totals $251m, according to another report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Lebanon ($104m), Yemen ($35m), Iraq ($348m), Syria ($191m), Tunisia ($55m), Morocco ($16m), Libya ($31m), Oman ($3.5m), Algeria ($1.8m) and Bahrain ($800,000) are all set to receive considerably smaller amounts.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration also proposed a 12 percent cut "of overall bilateral aid to the Middle East and North Africa", largely by ending FMF grants to Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Tunisia, the CRS report stated.

'Self-mutilation'

According to Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, the Trump administration has, over the last few weeks, ushered in "the end of 50 years of American dominance of the so-called peace process".

"It's a self-mutilation of a much-abused American role as mediator," Khalidi told Al Jazeera just before the General Assembly vote.

Trump announced he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 6 and that he planned to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the city, as well.

The decision prompted widespread and ongoing protests around the world and condemnation from world leaders, including several traditional US allies.

"The US has brilliantly isolated itself, even more than was the case before, with Trump's action," Khalidi said.

Raed Jarrar, advocacy and government relations director for the Middle East at Amnesty International USA, echoed Khalidi.

"The Trump administration's bullying tactics will only serve to further isolate the United States on the global stage," Jarrar said in a statement.

"Rather than threatening those who depend on US aid, the Trump administration should abide by its legal obligations not to recognise an illegal situation and reverse its course on Jerusalem."

Al Jazeera