U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, today delivered the following opening statement during the panel's hearing entitled "Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities and Needs Amidst Economic Challenges in the Middle East."
"The Chairman organized today's hearing to discuss our priorities in foreign assistance in the Middle East in the coming fiscal year. I'll tell you what the first priority ought to be: meeting the President's request for increased foreign assistance for the Middle East in the coming fiscal year.
At a time when the entire region is in the midst of a generational upheaval and with the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability drawing nearer--and it absolutely must be stopped--now is not the time to stuff our hands in our pockets and say that we've done enough. Nothing could be more short-sighted and contrary to our national security interests in the region than to draw back on our commitments or, worse, pull back, disengage and leave the region's fate to be determined wholly by others.
In the current fiscal year, U.S. foreign assistance will total an estimated $37.7 billion, or 1.0 percent of the total federal budget. By comparison, defense spending will exceed $646 billion. It's not a question of either or, but one of scale. Diplomacy and foreign assistance, is every bit as critical, and usually much more cost-effective at protecting and advancing American interests. To be clear, foreign assistance needs to be understood as a vital element of our overall national security strategy, not a soft-headed but compulsory form of charity we impose on our taxpayers.
We have a foreign operations budget for the same reason we have a Marine Corps; it proactively helps protect America, and it advances our vital interests and national security by dealing with problems "over there" before they become problems "over here." September 11th should have proved for once and for all that even if we don't visit bad neighborhoods, they can still visit us.
For many years, the Near East has been America's top recipient region. In FY-2012, we'll spend an estimated $8.0 billion and, wisely, the Obama Administration has requested a one billion dollar plus-up for the region in FY-2013. While a significant increase, the justification is obvious: the region, in which we have vital political, economic, and military interests, is in the midst of a metamorphosis, and we continue to have vital allies who are counting on us to fulfill our commitments to their security.
So now, in addition to our traditional objectives of promoting peace, development, and the spread of democracy, human rights and liberal values, we have a host of specific short-term challenges stemming from the remarkable and radical changes that have been transforming the region. There is the struggle of the Syrian people to free themselves from the Assad dictatorship. This change when it succeeds--and I believe we must facilitate that success to our utmost--will upend the strategic architecture of the region and deliver a fatal wound to Iranian dreams of hegemony.
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are all struggling to steady themselves and put new governments--which we certainly hope will be both democratic in outlook as well as origin--on solid foundations, all while addressing truly exigent problems within. On the Arabian peninsula and in the Levant, radical violent Islamists are seeking to exploit the chaos while ever seeking new safe havens from which they can plan attacks, including attacks on the United States. Our commitment to Iraq is ongoing, as is our support for Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco.
Finally, the bedrock commitment we've made to Israel, which remains a target for all the radical and malevolent forces in the region must be sustained and strengthened. At a time when Arabs are fighting and struggling for democracy and the fruits of limited government and rule of law, we must continue our support for the one truly shining example of these things in the entire region.
And while I am bitterly disappointed with the absurd decision by President Abbas last year to seek statehood from the UN--which can't give it--while refusing to negotiate with Israel--which can--I continue to believe it to be in the interest of both the United States and the State of Israel to continue our assistance to the Palestinian Authority. The transformations wrought by Prime Minister Fayad in terms of law and order, economic growth, and the maturation of government operations are nothing short of remarkable. And they absolutely could not have happened without the support of the United States.
While the two sides remain at odds presently, I remain convinced that Israel will one day be the mid-wife of a new Palestinian state for the simple reason that it's own vital interests in remaining both a Jewish and a democratic state will compel it to do so. When that day comes, our efforts to support the Palestinian state-building enterprise will yield remarkable dividends. Instead of a failed-state or a terror-state unable to sustain itself, Israel will have another neighbor able to fulfill its obligations both within and without.
The Middle East we knew for so long is dead and a new region is being born. Like any new-born, we do not know what it will become and, in truth, it is not for us to determine. What we can, and should do is to help within our means, offer counsel and assistance to those who seek it, and remain stalwart in our protection of our partners, allies and friends."