Despite Foreign Policy Shift, Pentagon Spigot Still Flows to Middle East
Recently passed US defense bill provides previous level of support, with interesting provisions
While US President Joe Biden continues his foreign policy shift away from the Middle East, the Pentagon’s money will still flow to the region.
The recently passed 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) focuses on preparing for strategic competition with China and Russia. Coming in at a price tag of $768.2 billion − an additional $24 billion over the Biden Administration’s original request – many of the funding provisions designated for the Middle East are comparable to those in last year’s budget, despite the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the end to offensive support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen and the end of the combat mission in Iraq, all of which took place in the last year.
Regarding Iraq, the 2022 NDAA positions the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF) to receive $345 million for Iraq, plus another $177 million for Syria. Washington has been leading an anti-ISIS coalition with dozens of other countries since 2014, and while the terrorist organization’s threat level isn’t what it used to be, American and Iraqi counterterrorism agencies are still concerned about the potential for ISIS to launch low-tech campaigns of violence.
“This line of funding is certainly consistent with last year’s, with a big portion going toward stipends for the peshmerga [the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi Armed Forces] and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service. There is a sense in Congress, though, that the pot of CTEF money is not permanent and they want to wean it over time,” Grant Rumley, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line.
“The US is still in a position to train and equip those forces and to advise and assist. If that money were dropped, it would hurt our partners,” said Rumley, who served in both the Donald Trump and Biden administrations as an adviser for Middle East Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Last month, ISIS fighters killed four peshmerga soldiers and one civilian, using hit-and-run tactics in night attacks.
US lawmakers, meanwhile, want to see a Biden Administration game plan for Syria – something that’s been hard to pin down for multiple recent American presidents. The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), inserted a measure into the NDAA requiring US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit a report on the administration’s vision for a political endgame to the Syria conflict and on any diplomatic maneuvering meant to get there.
“On Syria, it is hard to see an endgame. But even getting some sense of a strategy would help. So, this requirement could be illuminating, and help force the administration to think more about the issue,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Media Line. O’Hanlon specializes in US defense strategy, the use of military force and American national security policy.
Rumley agrees, saying, “There is a bipartisan desire to hear just what the actual Syria strategy is, and requiring a report is probably the most forward way to suss out what the strategy is,” and adding, “It’s not that the White House doesn’t have a strategy, but it is one of damage control, focused on keeping humanitarian aid going in, and wanting to limit the ability of ISIS actors to promulgate [their cause] in Syria.”
The NDAA also mandates a report on the State Department’s efforts to keep Arab states from renormalizing relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“There is a difference between speaking out against a normalization campaign and actively campaigning against it. The White House hasn’t indicated yet where they will fall along that spectrum,” said Rumley.
This week’s terror attack on Abu Dhabi by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, and the resulting show of US and allied support for the Emiratis, places an additional spotlight on the Saudi-led coalition’s brutal fight against the Houthis. The NDAA calls on the Biden Administration to deliver a report on whether Saudi Arabia has taken part in any offensive air strikes inside Yemen that have resulted in civilian casualties. It also prohibits in-flight refueling of any non-US aircraft engaged in that conflict.
There has been staunch opposition to the war in Yemen, and while Biden announced last year an end to offensive support for the Saudi coalition, he maintained the US would continue to provide defense support for the Saudis.
“Ending our support writ-large would do more harm than good. A provision ending some overall military support for the Saudis was removed, even though the House and Senate approved those provisions. Sanctions related to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi were also stripped out. I think there’s a bipartisan consensus that we can’t torch this relationship from a security standpoint,” said Rumley.
Other notable measures that were stripped out of the final text of the bill include a repeal of the 2002 Iraq war authorization and a requirement that the administration issue a report on Egypt’s detention and harassment of US citizens.
“Taking out the provision to revoke the 2002 Iraq war authorization was mostly symbolic anyway. Meanwhile, pressuring Egypt on human rights is usually smart, but it needs to be done in a meaningful way to be constructive. I’m not sure the NDAA is the right place. Perhaps the foreign aid funding bill is better,” said O’Hanlon.
The NDAA also provided measures to strengthen Washington’s support for the roles of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a mandate for a select Senate group to liaise with parliamentary counterparts in those countries on regional security and energy issues. Still, the Biden Administration recently signaled to Greece that it would no longer support the EastMed pipeline, a joint Greek-Cypriot-Israeli project for a natural gas pipeline, directly connecting East Mediterranean energy resources to mainland Greece via Cyprus and Crete. The State Department cited the project’s economic viability and environmental concerns.
Interestingly, an NDAA provision prohibits funding for Morocco’s military during multilateral exercises with the US until the Pentagon determines that Rabat is committed to seeking a mutually acceptable political solution in Western Sahara.
Officially, the US still recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara – a position initially taken by the Trump White House as part of a deal brokered to re-normalize relations between Israel and Morocco.
While the Biden Administration has not been as full-throated in its support of that arrangement and has received pushback from some influential lawmakers, the Pentagon, under Biden, ran joint military exercises with Morocco last year as part of US Africa Command’s largest multinational military exercise, African Lion.
There is a potential out for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who can bypass the prohibition if he proves to Congress that it would jeopardize US national security. Lawmakers required the administration to brief them on the issue by the beginning of March.