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A New Era: Reshaping U.S. Foreign Aid to MENA

Updated: Jul 3, 2022

By Jessica Bakas


The U.S. was heavily entrenched in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) affairs after 9/11, and arguably so as the effects of unstable states and terrorism in the region struck home. One of the major forms of U.S. involvement in MENA is foreign aid, which amounted to $5.3 billion out of the total $16 billion of U.S. foreign assistance obligations in 2001 and $12 billion out of the total $48 billion of U.S. foreign assistance obligations in 2019. However, with the transition from Bush Administration to the Obama Administration came a “pivot towards Asia” and a refocus on strategic competition with countries like China, Russia, and Iran. But, in practice, the U.S. has continued to be ever entrenched in Middle Eastern affairs. In fact, between 2013 and 2018--when the U.S. was supposed to “pivot towards Asia”--half of total U.S. foreign aid, which amounted to $47 billion annually, went towards the MENA region. So, how does the U.S navigate this new era of strategic competition while still ensuring it does not wholly abandon MENA and make matters worse in the region?

First, it's important to understand why the U.S. does need to reshape its foreign aid strategy towards MENA. Half of the reason comes from the fact that the established U.S. objectives in the region for the War on Terror have been provisionally achieved. One of the main objectives in the War on Terror and foreign aid efforts in MENA has been to reduce the capacities of major terrorist organizations. It can be stated that today the overall threat of terrorism from terrorist organizations is far smaller than it was been directly following 9/11. Earlier this year CIA Director William Burns stated that while “both Al Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets … After years of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the reality is that neither of them has that capacity today.” This can also be evidenced by the change in their geographic consolidation. By 2019, ISIS had lost the remaining parts of its territory in Syria and Iraq. In 2020, Al Qaeda had greatly diminished in visibility and impact partly due to the fact that there have been extensive successful assassinations of their leaders by U.S. forces which has caused instability in the organization. Another key objective of U.S. foreign aid to MENA was to protect the U.S. from foreign attack. Since 9/11 only about 100 Americans have died in attacks on U.S. soil linked to radical jihadism. Aside from the objectives of the War on Terror, a key objective of U.S. foreign aid was to strengthen Israel’s position in the region and forge a lasting alliance between Egypt and Israel and between Israel and other Western-backed countries in the region. The Egyptian-Israeli alliance is stronger than ever--to the point where they would remain partners even without U.S. aid. Moreso, Israel has become recognized by other Middle Eastern countries and has forged better relations with a multitude of other MENA states with the signing of the Abraham Accords. Don't get me wrong, I know there have been failures in U.S. foreign aid strategy towards MENA since 9/11, however, the three principal objectives have been overall achieved. Thus there needs to be a decrease in foreign aid towards these missions. Such failures also exhibit why the U.S. does indeed need to rethink its foreign aid strategy in MENA to ensure that the funds the U.S. does give are working towards meaningful objectives that are going to be achieved.

The other half of the reason as to why the U.S. cannot continue on the same path comes from the fact that in U.S. foreign policy need to be explicit priorities, as the United States does not have unlimited funds nor would it be in the best interest to stretch ourselves thin. Currently we are facing more pressing matters in Asia and Europe on the strategic competition front which necessitates us making these regions a priority. There are extremely sophisticated threats that come with our strategic competitors--nuclear threats, economic threats, cyber threats, etc. Not having the capacity to compete with them poses an existential danger that could weaken U.S. influence in the world. So, U.S. foreign aid must adjust accordingly to this threat and focus on building partnerships with East Asian countries in particular (in strategic competition with China). Redirecting funds for increasing U.S. soft power--such as vaccine diplomacy in the COVID-19 pandemic--which is a major player in our strategic competition with China and Russia especially.

Now, what does the reshaping of U.S. foreign aid strategy toward MENA in this new era look like? First and foremost, building a sustainable, efficient foreign aid mission in MENA allows for the concentration of our efforts, aid to critical issues in the MENA region that can be achieved and have comparatively high national interest. It looks like having a list of objectives to achieve, which includes priority levels and having an explicit way of measuring the success or failure of those objectives to enable the U.S. to change its means or maybe cease to pursue the ends. The U.S. should not waste its time and funds trying to achieve something that it does not have the ability to achieve. Similarly, the U.S. should not try to intervene where it simply has no place intervening in--where U.S. national interests are not served. Moreover, the U.S. should rethink how it disperses its funds within MENA. One current issue that should prompt U.S. foreign aid attention is strengthening support to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria as they are a force that supports American ideals in an area where American ideals are not supported and they have been successful against ISIS. Increased foreign aid to the Kurds would enable their forces, who are loyal to the U.S., to be able to further achieve U.S. objectives in Syria and Iraq while enabling the Kurds to have more influence in their backyard, which is also in the best interest of the U.S. Another current issue that should prompt U.S. foreign aid attention is the race in North Africa for the influence which China and Russia have been key players. This would mean that the U.S. foreign aid fund would need to be used to far greater address the socioeconomic and governance issues in North Africa--which were already vocalized in the Arab Spring--so that the region does not turn towards China nor Russia to help them--strengthening their spheres of influence and their economic policy and governance practices. China has already proved that it has an interest in this region with its Belt and Road Initiative. Ensuring stability in North Africa also prevents the region from becoming a breeding ground for more terrorist organizations to gain infleunce and power--which is important in consolidating U.S. gains from our previous heavy counterterrorism efforts.

An efficient, sustainable mission in MENA would enable the U.S., to focus its foreign aid on its strategic competition objectives while also ensuring the gains from our history of foreign aid to MENA are consolidated and that the U.S. does not continue to spend money where it is actually of no use. Reshaping U.S. foreign aid to MENA would mean a more stable MENA while also a greater ability for the U.S. to compete with our strategic competitors.


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