Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who sits on both the Senate Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees, pointed out the gap between U.S. rhetoric (including by prominent senators) in support of increased support to Tunisia and the Senate’s decision not to fully fund the administration’s request during Ambassador-Designate Daniel Rubinstein’s confirmation hearing in July. While Murphy did not go so far during that exchange, it is clear that not delivering in practice on our rhetorical commitments hurts our credibility and can have negative consequences for our relationship with Tunisia.
Additionally and perhaps even more salient, increasing our assistance and making good on our public commitments also makes it easier for us to rally other donors (primarily EU member states) to do the same. Even the fully funded amount of $134.4 million is small in comparison to Tunisia’s needs. Instead, Tunisia is relying on support from its European partners, the IMF and the World Bank, in addition to the United States. Failing to fund the administration’s full request, while continuing to fund other Middle East states at levels ten times that of Tunisia, sends a very loud signal to other donors that Tunisia is not a priority and is not deserving of significant support.
The decision to fully fund the administration’s request should be an easy one for Congress. The government of Tunisia is a reliable partner and a major non-NATO ally that shares U.S. values and interests in a region where few others do. Additionally, both houses of Congress have been rhetorically supportive of increasing aid and other forms of support to Tunisia. The Senate, however, advocates an ad hoc approach to Tunisian aid, urging State to rely on unused funds from suspended programming in Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere rather than doubling the bilateral assistance package in the FY16 appropriations bill. This piecemeal approach is doomed to fail. First, it runs counter to the U.S. government’s pledge to “normalize” its aid relationship Tunisia following the success of the 2014 elections. Second, cobbling Tunisia assistance together from a variety of pots, rather than approving a dedicated funding stream for Tunisia, would provide the Tunisian government with neither the reliability nor the consistency they need to address their immediate and long-term security and economic challenges. Tunisia is the last bright light remaining from the Arab Spring. It is in the interest of the entire U.S. government—the Senate, the House and the Executive Branch—to do what we can to keep that light burning.
Sarah Yerkes is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. She is a former member of Secretary Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff where she provided policy advice on North Africa.