The case for ending US military aid to the Mideast

There is now reliable evidence that US foreign aid to the Middle East is a costly experiment with dubious benefits.

Egyptian military helicopter 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Egyptian military helicopter 370
(photo credit: reuters)
With President Barack Obama preparing for a second term and in the midst of a seeming continual swarm of uncertainty sweeping the Middle East, now more than ever is the prudent time to reexamine the decades-old policies surrounding US military aid to the Middle East.
Many abroad might be shocked to hear that we write these words from here in Jerusalem where security remains the preeminent concern on the mind of most Israelis and where only weeks ago we completed an eight-day campaign defending our citizens against missile attacks. The immediate assumption by most is that Israel is in desperate need of continued military aid from our most powerful ally.
Yet the facts contradict that assumption.
THE REALITY is that the continuation of this policy does more to harm Israel’s security than protect it. And even beyond Israeli borders, the policy is a major factor in perpetuating further regional instability in an area of the world where there are no shortages of sparks that recent events have proven can at any time burst into flames.
In fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration requested from Congress $7.1 billion in foreign aid for distribution in the Middle East.
Approximately $3b. was designated as military financing for Israel, while over $4b. was earmarked as economic and military financing for Arab countries – countries whose military programs are in large part designed to prepare for potential hostilities with Israel.
Egypt, now under the authority of an Islamic government whose assurances it will maintain the peace with Israel are viewed as highly suspect, is the single largest beneficiary among Arab countries, having been allocated $1.58b. last year alone.
The conventional wisdom in US foreign policy circles is that these massive financial gifts are beneficial to both the United States and the recipient countries. In fact, the policy is deemed so important that advocates contend it must be maintained even in the face of a $16 trillion national debt, a $1t. yearly budget deficit and a fast-approaching fiscal cliff.
But as is often the case with government funding programs, US financial aid to the Middle East has good intentions with bad results.
Most fundamentally, US military aid to the Middle East harms Israeli and regional interests by fueling an arms race that threatens to spiral out of control.
Recent Israeli-produced estimates reveal that for every dollar in US aid received by Egypt, Israel must spend between $1.60 and $2.10 to maintain its qualitative military edge.
Since Israel is usually granted $1.50 for every $1 in aid to Egypt, each American dollar given to Egypt costs Israel between 10 and 64 cents out of its own pocket.
Of course, the net cost to Israel of US aid increases further when one takes into account the additional $1.5b. in economic and military aid transferred each year to Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Since aid is well known to be fungible, it makes little difference if US assistance is packaged as economic or military aid in the congressional accounting books but only what recipients end up doing with the money – something far more difficult to regulate.
The implications of these sobering estimates are clear.
EGYPT, JORDAN, Lebanon and the Palestinians would clearly find it difficult to maintain the same level of military might without US aid.
Without such funding, therefore, Israel would be able to significantly downsize its military capabilities and invest less of its own money defending against military threats which are remarkably financed by her closest ally.
An oft-heard counter-argument is that China or Russia would step in to fill the void if the US ceased providing funds to Arab countries in the region. However, China and Russia were always free to top up US aid to Egypt so that it reached parity with the higher amount provided to Israel. Yet, these countries never found it in their interest to do so.
An additional argument now heard is what about the Iron Dome, the missile defense system which successfully protected millions during the recent violence with Hamas.
Wasn’t this largely funded by US military aid? While indeed significant funds came from the US for this project, it was far more of a mutually beneficial business collaboration/investment between America and Israel than a handout. For Israel it defended our homes and our families. And for the United States it introduced a now proven defense system that will be installed in other hostility-prone zones and promote greater global security.
WHILE MANY well-meaning American Jewish leaders find it difficult to reconcile with the idea that the US should no longer shower Israel (or its neighbors) with financial gifts, it is instructive to examine how Israelis themselves view the US aid policy.
In August 2012, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies conducted the first-ever Israeli national opinion poll on US aid to the Middle East. A representative sample of the Israeli Jewish population was asked, “With the emergence of the new government and leadership in Egypt, do you think that weapons purchased with US military aid are more likely or less likely to be used against Israel than in the past?” Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) think it is more likely.
There is now reliable evidence that US foreign aid to the Middle East is a costly experiment with dubious benefits. By fueling a regional arms race, the security of its residents, both Israeli and non, is threatened and the prospects for further regional economic development are hindered. There’s no dismissing the irony that Israel’s greatest ally is actually harming Israel’s interests by funding our military but the fact is that this “generosity” is very negatively impacting on our security.
A sizable percentage of the foreign policy discourse in the recent campaign was dedicated to which candidate more strongly supports the Jewish state. President Barack Obama vociferously contended that the US-Israel relationship was as tight as ever. The administration would therefore be wise to seriously consider the prospect of finally ending US military aid to our region – an action that would bravely set a new course for foreign policy but best defend America’s allies and promote the stability which the Middle East so needs at this time.
Corinne and Robert Sauer are the founders of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.