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US president calls for ‘America First’, but practices ‘Trump First’

Aug 30,2018 - Last updated at Aug 30,2018

During his election campaign Republican candidate Donald Trump called foreign aid a waste of US tax dollars and pledged to spend on domestic rather than foreign development.

He declared the US should halt funding "countries that hate us" without thinking why countries might “hate” the US.

Upon taking office in 2017 he tried and failed to cut aid by 30 per cent and called for assistance to be supplied only to "friends". The Republican-dominated Congress wisely refused to accept his demand for such a massive cut.

Funding for international affairs, including foreign aid, 0.5 per cent of US government spending, was $59.1 billion for 2017, a figure allocated by the Obama administration, and $55.1 billion for 2018. Trump's call for a $18.6 billion reduction was rejected by Congress, which retains the "power of the purse". Of this amount, $42 billion is for foreign assistance. 

As the fiscal year ends on September 30th, negotiations have already begun for the 2019 budget. Trump is sticking with his demand for a 30 per cent cut and there is concern that Congress may not be able to once again stand against him. 

Trump has personalised both US foreign and domestic agendas and sought to bend policies to satisfy him rather than further US national interests.  He calls for "America First", but practices "Trump First".  

Palestine is the most obvious and punitive example. Trump's latest move was to cut longstanding humanitarian assistance to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. He personally decided to cut most of a $251 million package funnelled through USAID into projects in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Of this sum $60 million has been spent on projects promoting Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation (naturally, anything that benefits Israel is funded), but $25 million designated for Palestinian hospitals in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem has been suspended.  Since, thanks to Trump, the balance will not be released to USAID by the end of September, needy Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, will suffer.

After conducting a review directed by Trump, the State Department announced, "at the direction of the president, we will redirect more than $200 million in [approved in fiscal year 2017 for dispersal in 2018] Economic Support Funds originally planned for programmes in the West Bank and Gaza.  These funds will now address high-priority projects elsewhere." 

The administration accuses the Palestinians of being responsible for the defunding, claiming US funds cannot be spent in Hamas-ruled Gaza or the West Bank since the Palestinian Authority (PA) provides financial support to families of Palestinians jailed, wounded and killed by Israel.  However, previous administrations had no problem with Hamas or PA policies.  

The reason for the punitive shift is Palestinian and Arab rejection of Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, his transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the so-called "deal of the century" drafted by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, a strong supporter of Israel. 

The PA responded to Trump's Jerusalem stance by cutting ties with the US and rejecting the US as a mediator in potential peace talks between Palestine and Israel.  

The UN replied by invoking the 1950 "uniting for peace resolution" designed to get around Security Council vetoes that block action and calling for a special session of the General Assembly.  It voted in favour of a resolution which declared "null and void" Trump's Jerusalem recognition as it violated previous UN Security Council resolutions and departed from the agreed international position that the status of Jerusalem should be determined in negotiations between Palestine and Israel. Trump reacted by threatening to withhold US aid to the 128 countries that voted for the resolution.  

The administration is expected to announce a new policy involving the recognition as refugees of only Palestinians who actually fled their homes, cities, towns and villages during Israel's war of establishment. Their descendants would be deprived of this recognition.

The aim of this move is to cancel the right of return of nearly 5 million Palestinians and put an end to UNRWA, the UN agency which cares for registered refugees living in the occupied territories and neighbouring countries, including Jordan.  

At the beginning of this year, the US paid only $65 million out of $365 million pledged for UNRWA on an annual basis, about one-quarter of the agency's budget. Although new donors have made up part of the Trump deficit, UNRWA remains in debt to the tune of $200 million.  Combining the $300 million with the funds withheld from USAID, the Trump administration has denied nearly half a billion dollars in essential food, educational and medical aid to the poorest Palestinians.

By contrast, Trump continues to pay out the annual $3.8 billion in aid granted by the US in 2016.  The total is $38 billion over ten years. 

Not satisfied with defunding the Palestinians, Trump has adopted other measures to combat what it sees as bias against Israel. 

The administration has pulled out of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council and plans to cut allocations to the Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sum amounting to 22 per cent of its budget.

In October 2017 the US announced it would pull out of UNESCO by the end of 2018. 

The US halted funding for the organisation in 2011 after it admitted Palestine as a full member. Unpaid US allocations amount to $600 million. 

This will be the second time the US pulls out. It did so in 1984 during the Reagan administration citing pro-Soviet bias. The US remained out until 2002. The US is obliged to pay one-fifth of the organisation's budget.

Palestinians and UN agencies associated with them are not the only targets of Trump's defunding campaign.  Syria is also in his sights.  Trump cut $230 million allocated to demine, fix water networks and clear rubble from 80 per cent of the city of Raqqa devastated by the US-led bombing campaign to liberate it from Daesh. Trump then bullied Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the EU and others to donate $300 million, a sum that cannot come anywhere near meeting the needs of Raqqa's desperate residents.

Iraq is a special case because of the US invasion and occupation that left the country closely connected with Iran, seen by the US and its Gulf allies as their chief regional antagonist.  In addition to the devastation wreaked on Iraq during the US wars in 1991 and 2003, Iraq now faces the monumental tasks of rebuilding cities, towns and villages destroyed and damaged during the three-year campaign to defeat and rout Daesh.

At least 3.2 million Iraqis have been displaced. Since Daesh took Mosul in June 2014, the US provided Iraq with $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance and in September 2017 added $264 million in food and medical supplies. Since Trump has declared that the US does not do "nation-building", there has been no mention of long-term reconstruction aid, without which Iraq cannot address the grievances of its Sunni population whose alienation from the fundamentalist Shiite regime led to the rise of Al Qaeda and, ultimately, the appearance of Daesh in that country. It must be pointed out that the war on Daesh cost $14.3 billion from 2014 through 2017. Iraq's interim Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi estimates the cost of recovery at $50 billion.

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