June 10, 2021

A People-First U.S. Assistance Strategy for the Middle East

By Ilan Goldenberg, Daphne McCurdy, Kaleigh Thomas and Sydney Scarlata

Executive Summary

For the past year, the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has been developing a strategy for rethinking U.S. policy in the region. In a CNAS commentary titled “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East” published in July 2020, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas laid out a framework for a sustainable, limited, steady state approach to the Middle East that manages America’s limited interests in the region by: 1) pursuing a diplomatic approach based on de-escalating regional conflicts; 2) developing an assistance strategy centered on engaging with people rather than authoritarian governments; and 3) reducing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. CNAS’ August 2020 report—“Reengaging Iran”—proposed a diplomatic approach to the region. A future report will address options for reducing U.S. military presence in the Middle East. This paper focuses on rethinking U.S. security and economic assistance in the region.

The core assertion of this third paper is that the U.S. assistance mix in the Middle East must be rebalanced away from security assistance and toward development, democracy, humanitarian, and stabilization programs as part of a broader strategy emphasizing civilian rather than military tools. The two sources of greatest challenge in the region are popular dissatisfaction with authoritarian or weak regimes and intensive state-on-state competition. It makes little sense in that context to have an assistance strategy geared primarily around security assistance. The problems of nonresponsive governance are much better addressed through democracy and development programs reinforced by principled diplomacy, though ultimately real progress can only be driven by the people of the Middle East—not the United States.

Meanwhile, in countries where governance challenges have already led to crisis or conflict, stabilization and humanitarian programs can help mitigate the worst consequences of violence and help achieve short-term wins that lay the foundation for longer-term progress.

The U.S. assistance mix in the Middle East must be rebalanced away from security assistance and toward development, democracy, humanitarian, and stabilization programs as part of a broader strategy emphasizing civilian rather than military tools.

By contrast, security assistance to authoritarian governments, which often focuses on building capacity rather than legitimacy, can in many cases strengthen the exact security forces used to repress the local population, thus exacerbating instability instead of addressing it. In addition, pouring billions of dollars into security partnerships with authoritarian governments can send mixed messages about U.S. priorities and inadvertently undermine civilian attempts to entice better behavior. Unlimited American security assistance exacerbates the challenge of intense state-on-state competition, setting off arms races and increasing strategic competition.

Beyond changing the assistance mix, this paper also calls for specific reforms to the different types of assistance the United States provides in the Middle East.

To develop more effective development and democracy programs in the nominally stable countries of the region, the United States should:

  • Harness economic assistance to advance development and democracy goals rather than to maintain or improve bilateral relations with authoritarian states.
  • Shift money to primarily regional and functional funds and away from bilateral assistance, thus giving the United States more flexibility in its funding and creating competition across the region for projects that most closely meet U.S. interests.
  • Find creative ways to work directly with civil society in an increasingly repressive environment.

To improve humanitarian and stabilization efforts in countries affected by crisis and conflict, the United States should:

  • Consider policies focused on de-escalating conflict instead of taking sides or setting unrealistic objectives, such as regime change, that exacerbate humanitarian crises and, by extension, the need for humanitarian aid.
  • Prioritize humanitarian access to allow aid to reach those most in need in high-level U.S. diplomatic engagements.
  • Ensure that stabilization assistance serves higher-level policy objectives to achieve its goal of being politically oriented.
  • Cultivate a culture of greater risk-taking in managing assistance to the Middle East.
  • Account for the emerging threat of climate change in U.S. assistance strategy since it is likely to be particularly destabilizing in the Middle East.

To ensure security assistance helps countries of the region combat threats to their national security, while not bolstering authoritarianism or enabling arms races, the United States should:

  • Approach security assistance through the lens of a clear, sustainable regional strategy, not as an entitlement or means for sustaining bilateral relationships.
  • Reduce large-scale conventional weapons sales into the region.
  • Pursue more-targeted training efforts based on building up elite forces capable of conducting counterterrorism and irregular warfare missions instead of trying to fundamentally reshape regional militaries.

The reforms recommended will not be easy to execute, given decades of bad habits and poor policy, and could take years to take reap meaningful long-term benefits. However, they would better align U.S. assistance policies in the Middle East with America’s interests in the region.

Demilitarizing U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

For the past 20 years, U.S. policy has been overinvested in conflicts in the Middle East. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both attempted but ultimately failed to pull back from the region, and now President Joe Biden has committed to shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific region and focusing on the new challenges of the 21st century instead of overemphasizing the Middle East. The problem that both Obama and Trump had was that while they articulated a desire to leave the region, they never developed a clear, coherent alternative strategy for how to manage the challenges of the Middle East with a smaller U.S. investment that still protects the interests the United States does have in the region. Both eventually fell into the trap of being drawn back in—Obama after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); Trump because of his decision to leave the Iran nuclear agreement and escalate tensions with Iran.

The greatest challenge in the Middle East is the civil wars that have ravaged the region over the past 15 years, which have created an enabling environment for extremist groups to thrive and state-on-state competition to intensify through proxy wars.

In a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) commentary titled “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East” published in July 2020, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas laid out a framework for a sustainable, limited, steady state approach to the Middle East that manages America’s limited interests in the region. This approach begins with the proposition that core U.S. interests in the Middle East are to prevent terror attacks on the U.S. homeland or key U.S. allies and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. It also acknowledges other traditional U.S. interests such as protecting and securing global oil supplies and defending Israel but argues that they are less significant than in the past, given the nature of today’s global oil market and Israel’s increasing military strength.

Based on these core interests, this framework concludes that the greatest challenge in the Middle East is the civil wars that have ravaged the region over the past 15 years, which have created an enabling environment for extremist groups to thrive and state-on-state competition to intensify through proxy wars. The primary driver of these conflicts is the lack of political freedom and economic opportunity in this poorly governed region. These governance challenges have created wide dissatisfaction and led to protests, which have then evolved into low-level conflict. External actors intervene in these conflicts in an effort to advance their own interests vis-à-vis their regional competitors, which transforms small internal wars into major international proxy wars. This pattern has repeated itself in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq in recent years. These proxy wars exacerbate the threat of terrorism by creating new safe havens for extremist groups but also further fuel state-on-state competition, which also leads to a higher likelihood of regional actors pursuing nuclear weapons.

To address these concerns, the CNAS commentary recommended that the United States pursue a new U.S. approach to the Middle East based on three central and mutually reinforcing pillars:

  • Pursue pragmatic diplomacy based on de-escalation instead of focusing on regime change and military solutions.
  • Rethink U.S. security and economic assistance, focusing on investing in people rather than authoritarian governments.
  • Reduce U.S. conventional military presence in the region and pursue a limited, realistic, and cost-efficient “by, with, and through” approach to counter irregular warfare.

The remainder of this paper examines in greater detail the second pillar of the approach described above and focuses on concrete recommendations for rethinking U.S. security and economic assistance in the Middle East.

Rebalancing the Overall Assistance Mix

The core assertion of this paper is that the U.S. assistance mix in the Middle East must be rebalanced away from security assistance and toward development, democracy, humanitarian, and stabilization programs as part of a broader strategy emphasizing civilian rather than military tools. Since 9/11, the United States has spent approximately $228 billion in total foreign aid in the Middle East. Most of this has been security assistance, sometimes referred to as military assistance, which serves primarily to benefit the recipient country’s military capability. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, for example, 61 percent of the nearly $12 billion in aid obligated to the Middle East and North Africa was earmarked for military assistance, while the remaining 39 percent was civilian assistance (which encompasses development, democracy, humanitarian, and stabilization purposes), according to data collected by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This imbalance between security and civilian assistance is even starker when humanitarian aid is removed—80 percent versus 20 percent of total aid for security and non-humanitarian economic assistance, respectively.

As was asserted and explained in greater detail in CNAS’ other report in this series, “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East,” the two sources of greatest challenge in the region are popular dissatisfaction with poorly governed regimes and intensive state-on-state competition. It makes little sense in that context to have an aid strategy geared primarily around security assistance.

Nonresponsive governance is much better addressed through democracy and development programs that directly target the issue at hand, reinforced by principled diplomacy that incentivizes reforms and helps reorient the calculus of ruling regimes toward better serving their citizens. Meanwhile, in countries where governance challenges have already led to crisis or conflict, stabilization and humanitarian programs can help mitigate the worst consequences of violence and help achieve short-term wins that lay the foundation for longer-term progress.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent approximately $228 billion in total foreign aid in the Middle East.

To be certain, there is a role for security assistance in U.S. policy for the Middle East. In countries affected by crisis, working with local partners who have legitimacy on the ground can help restore some level of stability and create the space to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs and deliver much-needed services to ungoverned areas. And in nominally stable states, there is a value in working with small elite special forces that can help deal with the challenges of counterterrorism.

However, security assistance also comes with significant downsides and therefore should be a supporting element of U.S. assistance strategy—not the primary line of effort it has long been. Security assistance to authoritarian governments, which often focuses on building capacity rather than legitimacy, can in many cases strengthen the exact security forces used to repress the local population, thus exacerbating instability instead of addressing it. In addition, pouring billions of dollars into security partnerships with authoritarian governments can send mixed messages about U.S. priorities and inadvertently undermine civilian attempts to entice better behavior. Finally, unlimited American security assistance exacerbates the challenge of intense state-on-state competition, setting off arms races and increasing strategic competition.

Civilian assistance, if oriented toward the recommendations provided, could present a significantly better return on investment for U.S. taxpayers.

A recalibration of U.S. assistance to the region is all the more necessary because there is very little evidence that security assistance has been effective at achieving its stated goals. To be sure, the impact of civilian assistance programs is mixed, but there has been much more effort to evaluate the effectiveness of aid programs and reorient accordingly. Furthermore, civilian assistance is significantly cheaper than security assistance, resulting in better “bang for buck” for every dollar spent when done well. In short, civilian assistance, if oriented toward the recommendations provided, could present a significantly better return on investment for U.S. taxpayers.

Beyond that, the United States also must be realistic about what assistance can actually accomplish and its objectives. With security assistance and even some forms of economic assistance, the justification for this support is often that it strengthens U.S. leverage and influence in bilateral relationships. But time and again, these tools have proved ineffective at getting countries to make decisions that they view as fundamentally against their interests simply to retain U.S. assistance. While this is a global problem, it is especially prevalent in the Middle East. A wiser approach would focus first on the outcomes and objectives of the assistance instead of on the impacts it may have on bilateral relations. We take this approach throughout this report as a way to narrow and focus on assistance programs that are most aligned with U.S. interests.

Democracy and Development Assistance in the Nominally Stable Countries of the Middle East

Lack of accountable governance and economic opportunity is one of the central problems plaguing the Middle East. Together with intensive state-on-state security competition, it has led to the civil wars and foreign proxy wars that have plagued the Middle East in the last decade. U.S. assistance programs cannot single-handedly fix these problems; they will require solutions from the region itself and will take years to accomplish. However, at a minimum, U.S. programs geared toward long-term economic development and democracy support should help improve the situation when reinforced by principled diplomacy. Instead, too often in the nominally stable countries of the Middle East (as opposed to those in the throes of conflict or crisis that are addressed in the subsequent section) the bulk of economic assistance is disproportionately spent on enhancing relationships with the region’s autocratic governments, ultimately entrenching the deeply problematic status quo while not actually giving the United States any more leverage. At the same time, programs that are seen as a risk to existing regimes are discarded when host governments push back on U.S. programming. A better approach would be for the United States to:

  • Harness economic assistance to advance development and democracy goals rather than to maintain or improve bilateral relations with authoritarian states.
  • Shift money to primarily regional and functional funds and away from bilateral assistance, thus giving the United States more flexibility in its funding and creating competition across the region for projects that most closely meet U.S. interests.
  • Find creative ways to work directly with civil society in an increasingly repressive environment.

Economic development programs and democracy programs are often siloed and approached as distinct issues. This report purposely combined these two long-term tools to underscore the inextricable link between economic and political reforms. Addressing economic challenges without also improving governance can lead to unequal and corrupt growth, while pushing for democratization without considering a host government’s political and economic incentives for maintaining the status quo is naïve and potentially destabilizing.

Harness economic assistance to advance development and democracy goals rather than primarily to maintain or improve bilateral relations.

U.S. bilateral assistance to the nominally stable countries of the Middle East has served primarily as a signal of political support for their geostrategic value. While 80 percent of non-humanitarian U.S. assistance to the region is security assistance, economic aid to these countries is still among the highest in the world and is tied to security considerations, from support for the Arab-Israeli peace process to counterterrorism cooperation. As a result, many host governments view this aid as an entitlement, not for achieving development or political outcomes, but for serving as strategic partners of the United States.

Addressing economic challenges without also improving governance can lead to unequal and corrupt growth, while pushing for democratization without considering a host government’s political and economic incentives for maintaining the status quo is naïve and potentially destabilizing.

Egypt and Jordan, whose aid packages make up the vast majority of U.S. assistance to the region, present the most glaring examples of this distorted strategic intent. U.S. assistance to Egypt is primarily a legacy of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. While the economic component of the U.S. assistance package to both countries declined significantly as part of the “Glide Path Agreement,” the Egyptians still received $125 million in economic support funds (ESF) in fiscal year 2020 that went toward education, economic growth, health, agriculture, water and sanitation, and governance programs, making it one of the highest recipients of U.S. economic aid in the world. Yet there is not much to show for U.S. economic support in Egypt, as programs have often been captive to the regime’s demands and served to maintain patronage networks.

A 2015 inspector general audit of USAID’s response to the Arab Spring identified the tension between geostrategic and development objectives as a primary failure of programs. The report noted that in Egypt, the State Department “steered USAID programs to address political rather than development needs. This dynamic had a profound effect on the Mission’s ability to follow USAID’s guidance on designing and implementing developmentally sound projects.” Often, USAID staff had to “work backward” to find developmental justifications for projects motivated explicitly by politics. More recently, a State Department official described Egypt as a “fairly difficult environment” for USAID programs and said that while U.S. economic aid to Egypt is “pretty vast,” the impact of U.S. programs is “small.”

The Egyptian government’s increasing authoritarianism (the country scored an abysmal 18 out of 100 on the 2021 Freedom House Freedom Index) and constant obstruction have created an inhospitable environment for U.S. programming. As a result, the United States has been unable to implement several of its programs and has been left with a large balance of unobligated funds. Both the Obama and Trump administrations reprogrammed some of this money to other countries, but the pipeline of unspent funds still stands in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jordan, by contrast, has been much easier to work with, but it remains unclear whether U.S. economic assistance, which is focused on maintaining the kingdom’s short-term stability rather than addressing the core governance issues fueling popular frustrations, helps achieve development and democracy outcomes. As with Egypt in 1979, the aid relationship with Jordan was cemented with the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1994. However, unlike in Egypt, assistance has increased steadily over the years as Jordan is viewed across Washington as perhaps the most reliable and friendly ally in the Middle East. In FY 2020, Jordan received $1.2 billion in ESF, making it the largest recipient of U.S. economic support in the world. Jordan also receives preferential treatment through a memorandum of understanding, which commits the United States to provide $6.4 billion in both military and economic assistance over a five-year period.

America’s positive views of Jordan as a security and political partner distort its perspective on the country’s governance record. For example, after Obama called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down in 2011, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes recalls Obama saying that he was not sure if he would have done the same if it had been the American-educated King Abdullah II, whom “he liked” and for whom there was such affinity in Washington. More recently, after intra-royal discord led to former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein being placed on house arrest and publicly lamenting the “breakdown in governance, corruption and incompetence that has been prevalent in [our] governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years,” Biden called the king to pledge “strong U.S. support for Jordan and underscore the importance of King Abdullah II’s leadership to the United States and the region.” None of the U.S. official statements on these unprecedented events acknowledged the very real problems highlighted not only by Hamzah but also by international democracy groups such as Freedom House, which dropped Jordan’s ranking from “partly free” to “not free” in 2021. The response to Jordan stands out in comparison to other countries where undemocratic governments have faced coups and Washington sought to tread the undeniably difficult line between condemning the coup and condoning the ruling government’s misdeeds. After an attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, for example, the U.S. government urged the Turkish government to “act within the rule of law and to avoid actions that would lead to further violence or instability,” even while vowing “unwavering support.”

These U.S. statements are a reflection of Washington’s broader approach to economic and political development in Jordan. While the U.S. government’s Integrated Country Strategy highlights the importance of democracy and good governance in Jordan, it explicitly notes that the United States is “committed to the King’s vision” for such reforms, which up until this point have resulted in marginal changes that do not fundamentally alter power dynamics.

Accordingly, economic assistance to Jordan is designed to preserve the status quo rather than encourage policy changes that would allow for inclusive growth or a more democratic political system. For example, a large proportion of U.S. economic support to Jordan comes in the form of a direct cash transfer, which is the largest amount of budget support given to any U.S. foreign aid recipient worldwide.

While there are nominal conditions that must be met before transferring the funds, in reality this is a rubber-stamp process, and the conditions are typically low-hanging fruit. By effectively providing unconditional direct budget support, the United States reinforces Jordan’s aid dependence, further perpetuates the weaknesses endemic to rentier states, and disincentivizes important reforms.

Viewing U.S. economic assistance primarily through the prism of broader geostrategic goals muddles the strategic intent of these programs.

Moreover, U.S. assistance programs prioritize elite-led economic liberalization at the expense of fundamental political reforms. For example, in the early 2000s the United States endorsed a Jordanian government plan to remove locally elected officials in Aqaba and install technocratic appointees who could oversee top-down economic development. While Aqaba has undoubtedly seen an impressive economic boom, the growth has been highly unequal, led to corruption, and left many youths unemployed. According to a recent Arab Barometer report, 89 percent of surveyed Jordanians believed that “corruption is found within state institutions to a large or medium extent.” The removal of democratically elected local representatives has meant that the only pathway for airing such grievances is to take to the streets. In February 2019, hundreds of Jordanian protesters marched from Aqaba to Amman to demand economic and political reforms, underscoring the precarious nature of policies imposed from the top.

Viewing U.S. economic assistance primarily through the prism of broader geostrategic goals muddles the strategic intent of these programs. They prioritize the interests of the recipient government at the expense of critical economic and political reforms in an effort to preserve a cooperative bilateral relationship. However, it is not clear that assistance actually makes recipient countries more compliant. Research on whether aid can “buy” support is inconclusive at best. Moreover, as previously described, the lack of democracy and inclusive development in the Middle East is one of the key sources of all the other challenges the region poses to U.S. interests. Thus, it is in the U.S. geostrategic interest to support programs that lead to reforms, which would help improve governance and economic opportunity over the longer term.

A better approach would be to view economic assistance primarily as a tool for advancing democratic and economic development. Such an approach requires creating clearer benchmarks for success based not on the state of the bilateral relationship, but on governance and development outcomes. It would also require patience and a recognition of the limits of external assistance in overcoming indigenous hurdles to progress. As the appropriator of funds, Congress plays a key role in revising the strategy behind U.S. assistance. Meanwhile, the State Department would need to complement assistance efforts with meaningful and persistent diplomatic engagement to incentivize policy changes through both carrots and sticks.

Shift money to primarily regional and functional funds and away from bilateral assistance, thus giving the United States more flexibility in its funding and creating competition across the region for projects that most closely meet U.S. interests, similar to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) model.

This approach would begin by identifying democracy and development objectives and then disbursing money based on where there was both need and an optimal operating environment for achieving impact. Projects could be bilateral or regional, depending on the issue, but the funding would lie in a regional account so that assistance would no longer be viewed as an entitlement of the bilateral relationship. Rather than money being doled out because of a perfunctory expectation, funds would be disbursed when the conditions were right to achieve identified development objectives. Such a paradigm shift would serve three purposes.

First, it would allow the U.S. government to seize windows of opportunity in countries that are moving in a positive trajectory. For example, Tunisia is the only country in the region that emerged from the Arab Spring on a path toward sustainable democracy in the near term. However, the United States has historically underfunded this potential success story. In FY 2020, Tunisia received $95 million in U.S. ESF, which was less than Egypt despite the latter country having a large pipeline of unspent funds. To be sure, Egypt’s population is significantly larger than Tunisia’s, but Jordan, which has a smaller population than Tunisia, received 13 times more aid in FY 2020 than Tunisia and nearly 16 times more between 2012 and 2018. Tunisia stands exactly at the delicate moment where a major effort to support its democracy could make a difference. Progress on key political and legal reforms has stalled and many of the grievances that fueled the revolution, from corruption to unemployment, remain unaddressed. Tunisian leaders would benefit from U.S. incentives and political backing to tackle the more complex challenges that will inevitably face resistance and backlash, such as police reform.

Second, in addition to identifying specific countries that may be ripe for assistance, such an approach would allow the United States to prioritize specific issues in which U.S. assistance could benefit ordinary citizens and where the project would not be subject to exploitation by ruling elites to advance their own agendas. The selection of these issues could also be driven by determining which cabinet ministries may be more progressive and amenable to genuine reforms. Currently, in most countries across the region, the United States spreads funding across a variety of sectors deemed important, from health and education to democracy and women’s empowerment, with little regard for whether there is the capacity and, more importantly, the will on the part of the host nation to also tackle these issues. At best, these projects have marginal impact, such as political party training for parliamentarians in a system where the parliament has no power or technical assistance projects for state institutions that may professionalize their operations but do not address core governance challenges. At worst, these projects further perpetuate underlying grievances—for example, economic liberalization efforts that exacerbate corruption or unequal growth.

The leverage of U.S. assistance should not be overstated, particularly in the Middle East where Gulf countries provide significantly more assistance with no strings attached.

Rather than stretching funding across a variety of sectors, the United States should focus on a few key areas. One obvious focal point should be the dire water situation in the region, where already limited water sources are waning due to pollution, poor infrastructure, mismanagement, and inefficient agricultural practices. Jordan, for example, is now the second-most water insecure country in the world. To be fair, the United States has already invested significantly in this sector, but more emphasis should be placed on the regulatory reforms required to better manage water usage rather than just the technical aspects. Given the urgency of and the seriousness with which governments view the problem, this may be an area where the United States can help nudge governments to address governance challenges such as transparency and effective cost recovery that they would otherwise be loath to do. The United States could also link the water issue to educational programs, where Washington has already invested significantly, to educate and train the next generation of water engineers. The United States should coordinate closely with multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, whose comparative advantage lies in larger infrastructure projects, to address such issues as wastewater infrastructure and desalination.

Third, by creating a regional pool of funds the United States could generate competition among regional states that could incentivize reforms and better projects. Proposals for various projects could be judged across the region and given to the most compelling investments based on their impact on democracy and development objectives instead of starting with an assistance number for each country. Recent research demonstrates that introducing competition among the beneficiaries of foreign assistance and shifting aid toward successfully reforming countries raises the enticements for reform. Still, the leverage of U.S. assistance should not be overstated, particularly in the Middle East where Gulf countries provide significantly more assistance with no strings attached. However, as evidence from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) shows, positive conditionality can provide that extra nudge to catalyze reform where there is already a willingness to do so. A recent Brookings Institution study found that this so-called MCC effect allows “‘sympathetic interlocutors’ in low- and lower-middle income countries who consider the prospect of receiving the MCC’s ‘good housekeeping seal of approval’—and access to hundreds of millions of dollars in flexible grant assistance from the U.S government—as an opportunity to rally domestic reform efforts and neutralize anti-reform opposition.”

To be effective, however, these nudges need to be relatively quick and capitalize on opportunities in the host nation. In that regard, the MCC compact may not be an ideal tool. Tunisia was deemed eligible for an MCC compact in 2016 but projects have yet to be implemented. Rather than moving more programs to MCC or exactly replicating the MCC approach, the United States should look to apply the “MCC effect” to a regional pool of money with more flexibility and nimbleness. Congress may be hesitant to embrace a less prescriptive approach that limits specific earmarks but designing assistance in this way would ultimately serve as a better return on investment of taxpayer funds.

Find creative ways to work directly with civil society in an increasingly repressive environment.

Supporting domestic civil society groups that seek to build democracy in authoritarian-led countries is incredibly challenging. Legal restrictions and regulatory measures have hampered the operations of independent organizations or equipped governments with justifications to stifle those deemed threatening. When those limitations have proved insufficient, heavy-handed regimes have also taken extra-legal measures to crack down. In regard to the role of the United States, host governments often implicitly, if not explicitly, approve U.S. programs and try to steer funding toward nonthreatening or allied civil society groups, instead of actors who are seeking genuine change. Nonetheless, there is value in the United States’ building direct linkages to individuals and groups that may play more critical roles if political space opens in the future. To be sure, buttressing civil society actors is not just a matter of assistance and also requires diplomatic pressure to hold repressive governments to account. Therefore, any assistance strategy must go hand in hand with a diplomatic one that defends the rights of activists and protects the enabling environment as noted in USAID’s Stand with Civil Society initiative.

The United States, in coordination with European partners that have been more proactive in this sphere, should reexamine the civil society landscape in the face of closing civic space and the impact of COVID-19. The former has led to more informal and diffuse activism, large-scale protest movements that transcend religious, ethnic, and sectarian divisions, and the emergence of new forms of digital activism. The latter has engendered the mobilization of civil society groups to fill in the voids of their governments’ lackluster health responses by focusing on apolitical efforts such as essential services. For example, in Egypt, the Egyptian Medical Syndicate has become an increasingly influential and distinctive part of Egyptian civil society. The United States should expand the pool of organizations it is supporting in this new landscape and prioritize working with those that wield significant influence in their communities irrespective of how institutionalized they are or their specific focus area.

With 60 percent of the Arab world’s population younger than 30, youth engagement is critical to shape the future of the region.

To reach nontraditional nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the United States must adapt its funding and procurement mechanisms. There needs to be more emphasis on small and flexible grants similar to those of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (though the latter has become less relevant in recent years) in order for the United States to respond quickly in the event of unanticipated changes on the ground, as well as to support activists lacking sophisticated back-end management systems to qualify for assistance. But these smaller grants for discrete projects must be balanced alongside longer-term core funding that invests in the sustainability of organizations and allows them to plan strategically and set their own agendas. Some groups will never have the systems in place to meet U.S. government standards. Nor may they want to. Given the inhospitable environment for civil society in the Middle East at the moment, the United States should proceed carefully and recognize that other funders such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or foundations that can adopt a lower profile may be best suited to provide support in the current context. Congress has regularly supported the NED in its annual appropriations and in FY 2021 increased its funding from the previous year by 66.7 percent. Such levels of support should continue.

The United States should also leverage regional initiatives to invest in the next generation of activists and entrepreneurs. With 60 percent of the Arab world’s population younger than 30, youth engagement is critical to shape the future of the region. The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) is a good example of what such engagement could look like. YALI provides persistent, long-term engagement and relationship-building, not just one-off conferences. Approaching this investment in youth through a regional lens could alleviate some of the political sensitivity involved and compel more authoritarian countries to engage. For example, even Zimbabwe, which until 2018 was one of the most repressive countries in the world, participated in YALI because of the difficulty of saying no to an initiative that included all of its neighbors. In addition, regional platforms provide a safer space for donors to provide critical but extremely sensitive trainings such as protective technologies to improve local organizations’ digital security and ways to protect against online surveillance and harassment.

A similar approach should be adopted to support entrepreneurship in the region, which, according to the global consulting firm McKinsey, “is on the cusp of a potential entrepreneurship gold rush” and where 36 percent of youth desire to start their own business. Western donors have consistently urged greater regional economic integration, especially in North Africa, which according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could increase growth in each country by 1 percent. However, governments have been unwilling to pursue the difficult reforms necessary to do so. By contrast, nonelites regularly highlight their desire to be connected with their regional counterparts to better compete in the global marketplace and focusing on these bottom-up initiatives will likely have more success.

The Biden administration has emphasized humility and the power of the American example in its approach to democracy promotion. Given that, these regional networks could also include peer-to-peer exchanges with U.S. counterparts.

Humanitarian and Stabilization Assistance in Countries Affected by Crisis and Conflict

From Yemen to Syria, Libya to Iraq, the protracted conflicts of the region have imposed a horrific human toll and destabilized the broader neighborhood with massive refugee flows and transnational terrorism. Stabilization and humanitarian assistance can mitigate some of the worst consequences of these wars while reducing the space for extremist groups to thrive, underscoring both the strategic and moral imperatives of such tools. But to optimize their effectiveness the following recommendations should be taken:

  • Consider policies focused on de-escalating conflict instead of taking sides or setting unrealistic objectives, such as regime change, that exacerbate humanitarian crises and, by extension, the need for humanitarian aid.
  • Prioritize humanitarian access to allow aid to reach those most in need in high-level U.S. diplomatic engagements.
  • Ensure that stabilization assistance serves higher-level policy objectives to achieve its goal of being politically oriented.
  • Cultivate a culture of greater risk-taking in managing assistance to the Middle East.
  • Account for the emerging threat of climate change in U.S. assistance strategy since it is likely to be particularly destabilizing in the Middle East.

Consider policies focused on de-escalating conflict instead of taking sides or setting unrealistic objectives, such as regime change, that exacerbate humanitarian crises and, by extension, the need for humanitarian aid.

In Syria and Yemen, the United States has on the one hand been the largest or one of the largest donors, respectively, of humanitarian assistance, while on the other hand, taken positions that have inadvertently contributed to human suffering. For example, in Syria, U.S. diplomacy long aimed to remove President Bashar al-Assad—not de-escalate the conflict. As a complement to this diplomatic strategy, the United States provided military support to opposition groups until 2017. But the mismatch between America’s lofty ambitions and the minimal resources it was willing to put behind that policy has only prolonged the war, which has in turn driven the humanitarian catastrophe. Prior to the fighting, Syria was a middle-income country, but today 90 percent of its people live in poverty, 60 percent are at risk of famine, and 66 percent are dependent on humanitarian aid as a result of 10 years of conflict.

This misalignment of strategies and outcomes is also apparent in U.S. sanctions policy. As Assad has consolidated his power and made regime change appear unlikely in the near term, the United States has shifted from arming the opposition to escalating sanctions in an effort to compel him to step down. Economic coercion has had little impact on the Assad government’s behavior, which is unsurprising given that much more violent and threatening actions failed to remove Assad from power over the past 10 years. However, sanctions have undoubtedly contributed to the economic crisis in the country (though the regime’s gross mishandling of the economy and its brutal violence are primarily responsible). Today the United States finds itself in the paradoxical position of being both the lead contributor to humanitarian assistance in Syria and simultaneously the leader in economically isolating Syria.

A similar dynamic is at play in Yemen. Long the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has now become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with the war exacerbating malnutrition and the risk of famine. In the early years of the conflict, the Obama administration supported the Saudi intervention largely as a reassurance mechanism for Saudi concern about Iran even as the United States had major reservations about Saudi actions. The Trump administration continued this policy.

The Biden administration is taking a welcome alternative approach and focused on ending the war in Yemen as the primary objective. It also recently weighed the costs and benefits of designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization and decided not to because of humanitarian concerns. While many would argue that the Houthis meet the legal threshold for such a designation, the humanitarian cost of prohibiting assistance to a large swath of the country where the Houthis are present did not justify the debatable political benefits of such a punitive policy. The Biden administration’s approach to the war in Yemen is a welcome shift and the humanitarian toll of diplomatic policies should be regularly evaluated for other conflicts in the region.

Prioritize humanitarian access in high-level U.S. diplomatic engagements.

The humanitarian situation is particularly dire in both Syria and Yemen because parties to those conflicts have used aid as a weapon of war. In Syria, the regime has blocked humanitarian convoys to opposition areas as part of its “siege and starve” strategy and targeted humanitarian workers and health facilities. Within regime-held areas, it has controlled all aspects of aid delivery to reward supporters and punish perceived opponents. In Yemen, all sides have been guilty of aid obstruction. From the outset of the conflict in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a naval and air blockade on Yemen that severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine. While these ports were opened in April 2018, the coalition has continued to restrict and unnecessarily delay the delivery of essential goods and humanitarian aid at Hodeida port. Meanwhile, the Houthis’ obstruction and diversion of aid for civilians in need toward fighters or supporters has been so egregious that the United States and its regional allies reduced aid to areas under Houthi control in 2020.

Overcoming such interference in humanitarian aid deliveries can only be solved through high-level diplomatic channels. For example, in Syria, the only reason aid reaches the increasingly bloated population of northwest Idlib, where 2.3 million of the 3 million people (many of whom were forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria) are wholly dependent on humanitarian assistance, is because diplomatic negotiations at the U.N. Security Council resulted in the authorization of cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey. That authorization is set to expire in July 2021 and will require hard-nosed diplomacy at the most senior levels from the U.S. president, secretary of state, and U.N. ambassador to keep it open. Similarly, in Yemen, diplomatic negotiations have been critical to allow for humanitarian access. In February 2020, persistent U.N.-led diplomacy led to the reopening of the Sanaa airport by the Saudi-led coalition to allow flights carrying patients needing urgent medical attention.

Ensure that stabilization assistance serves higher-level policy objectives to achieve its goal of being politically oriented.

In countries such as Syria and Libya, the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on localized efforts to build democratic and inclusive governance bodies at the municipal or provincial level to provide basic service and respond to the needs of their constituents. The hope has been that these localized improvements can somehow influence or, at the very least, be incorporated into political negotiations at the highest level. However, in reality, these local efforts have rarely solidified into something bigger.

Recent political negotiations in Libya may serve as a positive example of what aligning bottom-up and top-down initiatives can look like.

For example, in the early days of the Syrian conflict, the support to local councils in opposition-held areas aligned with the broader U.S. goal of a post-Assad transition. However, these local bodies were completely disconnected from the political negotiations taking place outside the country with the Syrian political opposition, many of whom lived in exile. Later, as the war tipped in favor of Assad and extremist groups overran the remaining opposition-held areas, the United States grew more skeptical about a post-Assad Syria but continued to support these local councils, muddling the broader political objective of such programs. Worse, in eastern Syria, the United States supported local councils affiliated with the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in areas liberated from ISIS, but due to Turkish objections, refused to confer political recognition on them, which has undermined their legitimacy and ability to stabilize the area. More recently, political negotiations in Syria have narrowly focused on reforming the constitution through a constitutional committee, a superficial exercise that few Syrians believe would address the fundamental challenges in the country and certainly not the ones local stabilization efforts are focused on. Local actors are not feeding into political negotiations at the top, and these negotiations are either not producing any results or, if they are, the gains are not trickling down to the bottom.

Recent political negotiations in Libya may serve as a positive example of what aligning bottom-up and top-down initiatives can look like. In February, the U.N.-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) capitalized on a recent cease-fire to select an interim executive authority that will prepare the country for elections in December. Learning from the lessons of the failed 2015 political agreement in Morocco, which was never ratified because of the perception that it was negotiated by political elites with little transparency or consultation with constituents, the LPDF this time included a variety of political forces representing a cross-section of society from diverse geographic regions and tribes. It also included subtracks for women, youth, and municipalities and launched a series of digital dialogues, with over 1,000 mostly young Libyans participating in each session. While these efforts have injected new optimism into the political process, success will be possible only if this inclusive participation translates into positive changes on the ground, such as addressing the role of militias, electrical blackouts, and rising prices of basic staple goods, through continued engagement.

While both the SAR and GFA provide valuable guidance and thinking on the exact sorts of challenges embroiling the Middle East today, these frameworks have not effectively informed discussions about how to better mitigate or manage conflict in the region.

One key question for bottom-up stabilization efforts is whether such programs are still worth pursuing in the absence of progress at the national level. After all, diplomatic solutions in these intractable conflicts have proved elusive in the past, while local stabilization efforts have at the very least provided locals with basic services. Can progress in good governance and service provision at the local level offset the lack of progress at the national level? In the face of such dilemmas, the United States must be clear about its objectives for these programs. Are these programs an effort to maintain relationships and a foothold in these countries until a political opening allows for the alignment of diplomatic and assistance strategies? Are they simply efforts to alleviate suffering for these populations and, thus, just a more sophisticated form of humanitarian aid? More broadly, given the lack of clarity as to the political direction of these conflict zones, U.S. policymakers would do well to think through ways that assistance programs can be designed to leave a lasting impact at the local level irrespective of who ultimately takes power nationally.

Better integrate existing policy initiatives into regional strategies.

The Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) and the Global Fragility Act (GFA) have codified important principles on addressing state fragility. In 2018, the SAR laid the foundation for improved coordination within the U.S. government by establishing an interagency-wide definition for stabilization—to wit, “an inherently political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent a resurgence of violence.” By underscoring the political aspects of stabilization, the SAR helped dispel the notion that such assistance is effective without a clearly defined political end state and diplomatic strategy. The GFA is a bipartisan law passed by Congress in 2019 to reduce and ultimately prevent violent conflict by identifying and addressing multifaceted grievances in fragile states. Central to the law’s success is the requirement that the U.S. government coordinate and integrate a conflict prevention and peace-building strategy that builds on evidence-based, multisectoral approaches. While both the SAR and GFA provide valuable guidance and thinking on the exact sorts of challenges embroiling the Middle East today, these frameworks have not effectively informed discussions about how to better mitigate or manage conflict in the region.

One reason for this divide is bureaucratic—deliberations about the SAR and now the GFA at the State Department have been led by the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, one of seven offices/bureaus of the Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Under Secretariat that have historically struggled to integrate their functional mandates into regionwide strategies. Further, at the National Security Council (NSC), responsibility for the GFA is owned by the development directorate, which gives the impression that addressing fragility is solely an assistance issue. In order for the principles laid out in these policy frameworks to be operationalized in the Middle East, they need to be elevated to the deputies’ level within the State Department and/or co-owned at the NSC between the development and regional directorates.

To be sure, bureaucratic reorganizations are not a silver bullet and policy initiatives are only as important as senior policymakers believe them to be. However, they present one of the few ways in which U.S. policymakers can exert control over otherwise daunting problem sets. The Biden administration should elevate the SAR and GFA by incorporating its principles and recommendations into key documents such as the National Security Strategy to overcome policy silos and ensure that the strategic thinking baked into these initiatives informs the oft-reactive responses to events in the Middle East.

Cultivate a culture of risk-taking in managing assistance to the Middle East.

U.S. diplomats managing assistance programs in war zones have faced ever-stricter security measures, hindering the ability to do their jobs effectively. This is especially true in the Middle East, where diplomats focused on the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya work from third countries and those in Iraq and Lebanon are confined to fortress-style embassies. While assistance programs have developed rigorous monitoring mechanisms to track the delivery of aid remotely, other less tangible aspects of their work have been adversely impacted by operating in third countries or with severe restrictions inside the country.

The military’s ability to step in and provide assistance in the absence of civilian aid is critical, but as implemented now in places such as eastern Syria, the practice has increasingly become the norm rather than the exception.

First, U.S. knowledge of local context is biased and limited. As former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and career diplomat Anne Woods Patterson recently wrote, “I have seen our capacity to prevent conflict and build institutions sharply erode, particularly in countries where local knowledge is most needed. This makes it more difficult for us to foresee problems, much less shape solutions. The U.S. government’s aversion to risk means that officials know less—in fact, we are blind in critical countries. The United States made mistakes in Libya, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, because officials did not have a good understanding of the local scene.” While Ambassador Patterson refers specifically to diplomacy, this limited knowledge also impacts U.S. assistance programs, which must be informed by a diversity of local perspectives and adapt quickly in the face of highly dynamic situations on the ground.

Second, the lack of civilian presence on the ground further militarizes U.S. foreign policy, including foreign assistance. While civilians have withdrawn from conflict zones, the U.S. military has continued to operate and assumed many of their responsibilities. Not only has the military become the face of U.S. diplomatic engagements in many of these contexts, but it has also implemented assistance programs through special funds appropriated by Congress to the combatant commands. In theory, USAID and the State Department need to approve such projects, but in practice, the process is more of a rubber stamp and rarely leads to course correction. The military’s ability to step in and provide assistance in the absence of civilian aid is critical, but as implemented now in places such as eastern Syria, the practice has increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. This trend is problematic both because it blurs the distinction between military and civilian functions and because the military’s strategy for assistance provision may not be perfectly aligned or coordinated with that of the civilian strategy.

Third, operating from a neighboring country introduces new complications to managing aid programs. Whether in Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, or Saudi Arabia, the “embassies in exile” for the Syria, Libya, and Yemen programs, respectively, often struggle to find space in already overpopulated missions. As a result, teams are small and disbursed across consulates and embassies, which results in bandwidth challenges in the face of daunting issue sets and coordination challenges as U.S. officials managing similar programs are not physically together. Another complicating factor is that the goals of the host mission and that of the “embassy in exile” might not align perfectly. This has certainly been the case with U.S. assistance programs in eastern Syria that were overseen from Mission Turkey. The assistance has supported SDF-affiliated local councils and has directly contributed to the fraying of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, which Mission Turkey is dedicated to repairing. While the Turkey-Syria example presents an extreme case, one could also see how Saudi Arabia’s nefarious role in Yemen could position those overseeing assistance to Yemen in opposition to those seeking to massage the Saudi-U.S. relationship at Mission Saudi Arabia. In short, by working in a third country, U.S. assistance is not only subject to the politics of the target country, but also the country in which it is based.

In addition to Patterson, a slew of senior level officials, many of whom are now back in U.S. government, from Jon Finer to Bill Burns, have advocated for a paradigm shift within the State Department to overcome its aversion to risk, which should extend to those overseeing assistance—whether at State or USAID. The first step is to get civilians back into conflict zones. Yet overcoming a bunker mentality does not mean placing civilians in fortress embassies with no mobility, but rather implementing cultural reforms that actually allow and incentivize diplomats to engage with local interlocutors. For example, the deployment of a handful of civilians to eastern Syria between 2017 and 2019 was lauded for this exact reason. However, in practice, local authorities always accompanied U.S. diplomats in their meetings off base, deterring civil society actors from speaking candidly about their views on governance and politics.

Conflict assessments and program designs should more thoroughly examine the role of climate change in fomenting instability and, in turn, the ways in which war and fragility may exacerbate climate change.

This cultural shift should also extend to risk tolerance about the provision of aid. As previously mentioned, aid programs have developed rigorous monitoring mechanisms to track the provision of assistance. However, the contexts in which this aid is delivered are highly politicized and vulnerable to exploitation or diversion by bad actors, from ISIS to Iranian-backed militias. While aid programs should be held accountable, they should also be allowed to fall short and not fear harsh penalization. Only then will implementers be forthcoming about the challenges and adapt programmatic operations, taking into account learning from earlier shortcomings. This cultural shift is all the more necessary given that U.S. arms sales are not subject to the same scrutiny. For example, U.S. policymakers have threatened to cut off aid to regime-held Syria and actually did so in Houthi-controlled Yemen due to admittedly egregious obstruction but have continued supplying the Iraqi government with arms and training despite the fact that local security forces, which had already received billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. security assistance, disintegrated quickly in the face of the Islamic State in 2014.

Account for the emerging threat of climate change in U.S. assistance strategy, especially since it is likely to be particularly destabilizing in the Middle East.

With already scarce water sources, dry climates, and hot temperatures, the Middle East will likely be the region hardest hit by climate change. Indeed, summer temperatures are expected to increase twice as fast there as the global average. And rare incidents like droughts and dust storms will get longer and more frequent. The combination of these environmental shocks with poor governance and weak institutions in the region will drive further instability.

As agricultural conditions deteriorate due to climate change, farmers will be left without jobs and forced to migrate to overpopulated urban centers. Competition for employment opportunities and limited natural resources will worsen pressure on states to respond and will increase social tensions. While the precise relationship between climate change and conflict remains unclear, there is general consensus among scientists that an indirect correlation exists. For example, in Yemen, in the face of depleting water at the Sa’da basin, the Houthi movement exploited grievances among impoverished farmers who could not compete with the sophisticated irrigation methods of wealthy landowners. In Syria, the question of whether climate change instigated the 2011 uprising has elicited fervent debate. Nevertheless, with 1.5 million people from eastern Syria having fled to major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo as a result of the 2007-2010 drought, it is likely that climate-induced migration exacerbated fragility. In turn, these conflicts have further degraded the environment. Aerial bombardments have released pollutants into the air, the targeting of oil and sewage facilities has resulted in dangerous spills, and the proliferation of explosive remnants of war has contaminated soil and water sources and harmed wildlife.

It is imperative that U.S. policymakers seeking to address conflicts in the region understand the vicious cycle of climate change and violence. While all USAID programs must undergo an environmental impact assessment to ensure that activities “are protective of the environment” and many projects seek to build resilience to environmental shocks, the intersection of climate change with political and governance issues is still limited. Conflict assessments and program designs should more thoroughly examine the role of climate change in fomenting instability and, in turn, the ways in which war and fragility may exacerbate climate change. Projects seeking to build social cohesion at the local level should focus on creating dispute mechanisms for resource competition while governance programs should encourage more equitable and transparent distribution of resources, particularly as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees return to their homes. Efforts to better connect grassroots initiatives and civil society with political negotiations at the top should include environmental activists. And in countries where whole cities must essentially be rebuilt due to the devastation of war, post-conflict reconstruction should be seen as an opportunity to adopt more climate-friendly policies and infrastructure.

Security Assistance Focused Narrowly on Counterterrorism

U.S. assistance policy in the Middle East is overwhelmingly geared to security assistance to target a broad and diverse set of policy goals. While security assistance remains an important instrument in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit, it has contributed to the main drivers of instability in the region by emboldening authoritarian governments, prolonging conflicts, and fueling arms races between interstate rivals. Moreover, its overuse and lack of focus have resulted in inconsistent outcomes. The U.S. government should seek to reduce its military footprint in the region by focusing instead on smaller, strategic investments that align with today’s security challenges. Specifically, the United States should:

  • Approach security assistance through the lens of a clear, sustainable regional strategy, not as an entitlement or means for sustaining bilateral relationships.
  • Reduce large-scale conventional weapons sales into the region.
  • Pursue more-targeted training efforts based on building up elite forces capable of conducting counterterrorism and irregular warfare missions instead of trying to fundamentally reshape regional militaries.

Approach security assistance through the lens of a clear, sustainable regional strategy, not as an entitlement or means for sustaining bilateral relationships.

Security assistance is a core element of many U.S. bilateral relationships in the Middle East. Yet U.S. security assistance engagements are rarely tied to clearly identified strategic objectives. Instead, they are seen by both the United States and its partners as a tool to strengthen the bilateral relationship, with that being the end unto itself. Many regional governments have come to see U.S. security assistance as an entitlement, and as such, alterations to bilateral aid packages, specifically decreases in funding, have been interpreted as U.S. efforts to abandon the relationship. Moreover, while security assistance is often seen as a potential lever of influence over regional partners, this lever proves inadequate when there is a fundamental difference of opinion in the relationship. Historically, the United States has not successfully used the leverage of its assistance to convince a sovereign nation to do something it considers contrary to its own national interests.

Many regional governments have come to see U.S. security assistance as an entitlement, and as such, alterations to bilateral aid packages, specifically decreases in funding, have been interpreted as U.S. efforts to abandon the relationship.

Perhaps the best recent example of the United States’ inability to effectively leverage its assistance is after the 2013 ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The United States sought to express its disapproval of the coup and the human rights violations that followed by withholding security assistance. This did little to change Egyptian behavior, and eventually the United States decided to restart the assistance to maintain the bilateral relationship. The end result was an angry and alienated Egyptian government still receiving billions of dollars in U.S. assistance for programs of marginal value to U.S. priorities. Indeed, by this point, one of the primary reasons for the assistance—the Israel-Egypt peace treaty—was being implemented by both sides because it was in their national interest rather than as some sort of concession for receiving U.S. arms.

Moreover, U.S. security assistance often strengthens the exact authoritarian, overly militarized policies that are at the root of regional instability. In the case of Egypt, U.S. security assistance helps bolster an imbalanced military-civilian relationship and further strengthens the military’s role in Egypt’s economy. This is not to say that the United States should cut off assistance altogether, but it should weigh the costs and benefits of providing assistance that is not achieving any strategic outcomes while also contributing to repression.

A better approach would be to go back to basics and focus on U.S. objectives in the Middle East, which should revolve around preventing terror attacks on the U.S. homeland and on U.S. allies and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Such an approach would lead to an entirely different set of arms sales for the region based more on countering irregular warfare and reducing security competition among the states in the region.

Reduce large-scale conventional weapons sales into the region.

U.S. security assistance has historically involved providing through Foreign Military Financing (FMF) or selling through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) billions of dollars’ worth of conventional weaponry. In 2019, the United States agreed to $25.5 billion in arms deals with partners in the Middle East through the FMS. While these sales have an economic benefit to the United States, many have little strategic benefit and, in some cases, exacerbate the situation in the Middle East.

The United States should weigh the costs and benefits of providing assistance that is not achieving any strategic outcomes while also contributing to repression.

Many of these weapons are inefficient and highly expensive tools for dealing with the low intensity conflict missions associated with counterterrorism and irregular warfare challenges that these partners mostly face. Comprehensive counterterrorism efforts include intelligence cooperation, economic efforts to cut off terrorist funding sources, and targeted attacks against individuals and groups. However, the weapons typically included in U.S. arms sales are ill-suited to these effects. For example, on his last day in office, Trump approved the sale of 50 F-35s to the United Arab Emirates, arguing that the deal would bolster the United Arab Emirates’ efforts to counter Iran and, by extension, bolster America’s own security. However, the F-35 is an advanced conventional, offensive weapon that will be of little use in defending the Gulf nation from asymmetric attacks from Iran. In addition, since the 1980s, the United States has regularly sent M1A1 Abrams tanks to Egypt. While these tanks are best suited for large land battles, Egypt does not face a serious threat of invasion. In fact, Egypt has yet to even use approximately 200 of these American tanks. Similarly, the United States has sent Egypt over 200 fighter jets even though U.S. military advisors in Egypt do not believe them to be useful. Instead, these deals are continuously renewed without compelling strategic justification. They do not help with the challenges posed by terrorism and civil war, or even against Iranian asymmetric capabilities. These arms deals are geared toward conventional fights, which are unlikely given that most of today’s conflicts are fought in the gray zone.

U.S. arms sales have exacerbated the effects of devastating conflicts in the region, as in Yemen.

At their most extreme, U.S. arms sales have exacerbated the effects of devastating conflicts in the region, as in Yemen. Between 2015—when the Yemen war began—and 2020, the United States supplied nearly 73 percent of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports, totaling $3 billion. While Obama’s initial approval of Saudi air strikes was meant to mitigate civilian casualties, it is clear these efforts failed to rid Yemen of Houthi rebel groups. Instead, nearly 250,000 people have died in what can only be considered a protracted conflict. Biden’s February decision to halt U.S. support of Saudi offensive operations in Yemen represents a welcomed improvement. However, five years of armed conflict—aided by U.S. security assistance—have devastated Yemen and further emboldened U.S. adversaries such as Iran.

The United States has a strong track record of training elite forces within these larger partner militaries.

Lastly, the continuation of these seemingly unlimited arms agreements also promotes destabilizing arms races in the region. One of Iran’s central justifications for its missile program is the conventional capabilities built up by the Gulf. In a 2017 interview with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated, “Iran has defensive needs. Iran is not buying $400 billion of so-called beautiful military equipment from the United States. Iran needs to develop its own defenses. We have said time and again and have proven that our missiles are for defense.” Yet even though Saudi Arabia’s defense budget dwarfs that of Iran, Iran effectively competes with Saudi Arabia militarily using its strategies of supporting surrogates and proxies. Yemen is again the perfect example, where Saudi Arabia has used highly expensive U.S. weaponry to conduct an ineffective campaign, while Iran—through the use of arms transfers, especially rockets and drones—has been able to support the Houthis and bog the Saudis down at great cost. Iran’s cheap methods are not only effective but instill fear throughout the region, proving the inefficiencies of American security assistance methods.

Pursue more-targeted training efforts based on building up elite forces capable of conducting counterterrorism and irregular warfare missions.

Too often U.S. training and security assistance in the Middle East is based on trying to wholly reform partner nation militaries or using security assistance to achieve the broad, and often vague, objective of building partner capacity. These very broad and often expensive activities are then all described under the justification of countering terrorism. Historically, the United States has not been successful when it tries to train and totally rework large Arab militaries. This is in part because a central component of these militaries is patronage and dealing with internal, not external, threats and politics. It is clear that the United States will not be able to overcome this type of challenge, especially in the short term.

However, the United States has a strong track record of training elite forces within these larger partner militaries. These focused efforts to train and equip elite forces are critical to countering challenges the United States cares about, especially counterterrorism and the instability associated with civil wars. Moreover, this much cheaper and more-targeted approach allows the United States to reduce the level of security assistance it provides to the region. And it helps reduce some of the negative effects of building up security forces that repress their own populations by making these programs smaller and more targeted.

In Iraq, the U.S.-created Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) remains an effective partner in the fight against the Islamic State, even as other local security agencies have significantly weakened. The CTS was established and nurtured by the United States after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s government and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq. It is considered to be the one Iraqi military unit that maintained the best operational capabilities, and after ISIS seized large areas of Iraq in 2014, CTS forces were heavily deployed to counter this threat and proved to be the most effective partner fighting force in Iraq. The important lesson taken from the CTS experience is that a long-term American commitment to a small elite Arab force can make a meaningful difference and improve battlefield capabilities.

Likewise, as a result of U.S. assistance and training, the Lebanese Maghawir, an elite special forces unit in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), has strengthened and maintained internal stability in Lebanon against terrorist threats. Lebanon has been one of the largest recipients of foreign assistance in the Middle East, receiving $218 million in military grant assistance in FY 2019, the vast majority of which has come in the form of training and equipment. Starting in 2008, the United States increased its training of LAF special forces units, and particularly as part of U.S. efforts to counter ISIS in 2017. The Maghawir led the LAF’s operations to retake the Syrian border town of Arsal from ISIS in 2017 and continually deployed and sustained forces in eastern Lebanon for effective operations—leveraging support from U.S. military advisors. U.S. assistance and support for Maghawir reportedly made it the most confessionally balanced force within the Lebanese military.

Conclusion

The Biden team is the latest in a string of administrations to come into office seeking to deprioritize the Middle East. But as both President Obama and President Trump learned, attempting to pivot to other regions without a sustainable approach to the Middle East has often drawn Washington back in with reactive, overly militarized responses. Deemphasizing the region, then, can’t mean abandoning it all together. Instead, the United States must develop a sustainable approach to the Middle East that addresses the underlying problems of poor governance and intense state-on-state competition. U.S. assistance can be a key pillar in this approach, which must start with democracy and development assistance that actually prioritizes democratic development outcomes. It should also prioritize humanitarian and stabilization funding to assist the countries in the region afflicted by civil war. Finally, while security assistance can be a useful tool, it must be used sparingly to achieve clear and narrow objectives, rather than making it the centerpiece of U.S. assistance policy in the Middle East. While change will ultimately come from the people of the region, the United States can be a partner, both in terms of technical support and providing accountability. The path toward stability and progress will undoubtedly be bumpy and unpredictable, but a Middle East strategy that elevates the importance of civilian assistance will limit U.S. engagements, and more importantly, ensure the United States is playing a constructive rather than destabilizing role in the region.

About the Authors

Ilan Goldenberg is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He previously served at the State Department as a chief of staff for the small team supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct permanent-status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Goldenberg was formerly a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he focused on the Middle East. Prior to that, he served as a special advisor on the Middle East and then as the Iran team chief in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Daphne McCurdy is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Fellow with The Century Foundation, focusing on conflict, governance, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. She previously served at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State, where she oversaw stabilization and countering violent extremism programs across the Middle East and Africa in Washington and the field. She has also worked at the United Nations, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutes, and she conducted research on Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East as a Fulbright scholar in Turkey. She was a 2020 CNAS Shawn Brimley Next Generation National Security Fellow.

Kaleigh Thomas is the Associate Fellow for the Middle East Security Program and 2020 recipient of the 1LT Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., USA Award at CNAS. She also serves as cofounder and director of the Make Room initiative at CNAS, which aims to empower and educate communities underrepresented in national security. Previously at CNAS, she served as research associate for the Middle East Security Program and program coordinator for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program. Thomas holds an MA from American University in international peace and conflict resolution and a BS in business administration from the University of South Carolina.

Sydney Scarlata is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern in the Middle East Security Program at CNAS. She is completing her MA from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in international economics and strategic studies and holds a BA in political science from Reed College.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the experts who participated in a series of roundtables on U.S. assistance to the Middle East for their insights. The authors are also grateful to Kristin M. Lord, Frances Z. Brown, and Elisa Catalano Ewers for their review of this report and the helpful comments they offered. Finally, this report would not be possible without the work of Melody Cook, Maura McCarthy, and Emma Swislow, who assisted with the production of this paper.

About the CNAS Middle East Security Program

The CNAS Middle East Security Program conducts cutting-edge research on the most pressing issues in this turbulent region. The program focuses on the sources of instability in the region, maintaining key U.S. strategic partnerships, and generating solutions that help policymakers respond to both fast-moving events and long-term trends. The Middle East Security Program draws on a team with deep government and nongovernment experience in regional studies, U.S. foreign policy, and international security. It analyzes trends and generates practical and implementable policy solutions that defend and advance U.S. interests.

  1. Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas, “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East” (Center for a New American Security, July 20, 2020), https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/demilitarizing-u-s-policy-in-the-middle-east.
  2. Goldenberg and Thomas, “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”
  3. Goldenberg and Thomas, “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”
  4. U.S. foreign assistance to the Middle East and North Africa region between fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2019 totaled $228 billion according to data from the U.S. Agency for International Development, “Foreign Aid Explorer: The official record of U.S. foreign aid,” https://explorer.usaid.gov/data.
  5. Jeremy M. Sharp, Carla E. Humud, and Sarah R. Collins, “U.S. Foreign Assistance to the Middle East: Historical Background, Recent Trends, and the FY2021 Request,” R46344 (Congressional Research Service, May 5, 2020), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46344.
  6. Breakdown in aid categories calculated using data from the U.S. Agency for International Development, “Foreign Aid Explorer: The official record of U.S. foreign aid.”
  7. Andrew Miller, Seth Binder, and Louisa Keeler, “President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Shadow of COVID-19” (Project on Middle East Democracy, June 2020), https://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/POMED_FY21BudgetReport.pdf.
  8. Goldenberg and Thomas, “Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East.”
  9. Andrew Miller and Daniel Mahanty, “U.S. Security Aid is a Faith-Based Policy,” Just Security, April 14, 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/69533/u-s-security-aid-is-a-faith-based-policy/.
  10. Marian Leonardo Lawson, “Does Foreign Aid Work? Efforts to Evaluate U.S. Foreign Assistance,” R42827 (Congressional Research Service, June 23, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42827.pdf.
  11. Miller, Binder, and Keeler, “President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Shadow of COVID-19.”
  12. Al-Monitor Staff, “Egypt’s foreign minister affirms ‘solid and stable’ relationship with Israel,” Al-Monitor, September 23, 2016, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/egypt-interview-sameh-shoukry-foreign-minister-unga-cairo.html#ixzz6lqQOlhpC.
  13. The “Glide Path Agreement” was carried out over a 10-year period (1998-2008) and reduced economic aid from $815 million to about $415 million, in parallel with a phasing out of U.S. economic aid to Israel.
  14. Amy Hawthorne, “Rethinking U.S. Economic Aid to Egypt” (Project on Middle East Democracy, October 2016), https://pomed.org/report-rethinking-u-s-economic-aid-to-egypt/.
  15. Miller, Binder, and Keeler, “President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Shadow of COVID-19.”
  16. Miller, Binder, and Keeler, “President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Shadow of COVID-19”; and “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” RL33003 (Congressional Research Service, June 7, 2018), https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20190312_RL33003_66b95b744e0b2b9a8421e03b80afae08e92425d9.pdf.
  17. Jeremy M. Sharp, “Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations,” RL33546 (Congressional Research Service, June 18, 2020), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33546.pdf.
  18. Pod Save the World, “Should America boycott the 2022 Olympics?,” podcast audio, April 7, 2021, https://crooked.com/podcast/should-america-boycott-the-2022-olympics/.
  19. “Integrated Country Strategy: Jordan” (State Department, September 19, 2018), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/ICS-Jordan_UNCLASS-508.pdf; and Osama al Sharif, “King’s call to revisit political reforms triggers cautious optimism in Jordan,” Al-Monitor, February 8, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/02/jordan-reform-abdallah-king-biden-politics-change.html.
  20. Al Sharif, “King’s call to revisit political reforms triggers cautious optimism in Jordan.”
  21. “Arab Barometer V Jordan Country Report” (Arab Barometer, 2019), https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/ABV_Jordan_Report_Public-Opinion-2019.pdf.
  22. Mustafa Abu Sneineh, “Jordan to create jobs for young people who undertook epic protest march,” Middle East Eye, February 22, 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jordan-create-jobs-young-people-who-undertook-epic-protest-march; and David Linfield, “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 11, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/11/international-donors-are-complicit-in-middle-eastern-elites-game-pub-83595.
  23. The metric most frequently used in academic research to measure the relationship between aid and foreign policy alignment has been U.N. voting records. According to the Center for Global Development, the findings have varied depending on specific methodology. While the canonical paper on this issue finds a correlation between U.S. aid and voting alignment at the U.N. General Assembly, this paper and the broader literature on this topic cannot prove causality as aid flows increase when countries get on the U.N. Security Council. Thus, it is not clear whether aid buys votes or if geostrategic importance buys aid. Finally, many U.S. foreign policy interests are not captured in U.N. voting patterns, undermining the significance of any findings related to this metric. Sarah Rose, “Linking US Foreign Aid to UN Votes: What Are the Implications?” (Center for Global Development, May 4, 2018), https://www.cgdev.org/publication/linking-us-foreign-aid-un-votes-what-are-implications.
  24. Sarah Yerkes and Nesrine Mbarek, “After Ten Years of Progress, How Far Has Tunisia Really Come?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 14, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/14/after-ten-years-of-progress-how-far-has-tunisia-really-come-pub-83609.
  25. Ram Aviram, Ahmad Hindi, and Saad Abu Hammour, “Coping with Water Scarcity in the Jordan River Basin” (The Century Foundation, December, 14, 2020), https://tcf.org/content/report/coping-water-scarcity-jordan-river-basin/.
  26. Jakob Svensson, “Why conditional aid does not work and what can be done about it?” Journal of Development Economics, 70 no. 2 (April 2003), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304387802001025.
  27. Bradley Parks, “Where has the Millennium Challenge Corporation succeeded and failed to incentivize reform – and why?,” Future Development blog on Brookings.edu, April 1, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/04/01/where-has-the-millennium-challenge-corporation-succeeded-and-failed-to-incentivize-reform-and-why/.
  28. “Stand with Civil Society: Best Practices” (U.S. Agency for International Development, January 2014), https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1866/SWCS%20Best%20Practices%20Publications%20Final%20(1).pdf.
  29. Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers, “Defending Civic Space: Is the International Community Stuck?” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 22, 2019), https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/22/defending-civic-space-is-international-community-stuck-pub-80110.
  30. Youssef Cherif, Hafsa Halawa, and Ozge Zihnioglu, “The Coronavirus and Civic Activism in the Middle East and North Africa” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 7, 2020), https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/12/07/coronavirus-and-civic-activism-in-middle-east-and-north-africa-pub-83142.
  31. “Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth,” ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2016, https://nesa-center.org/inside-the-hearts-and-minds-of-arab-youth/; and Ahmad J. Alkasmi, Omar El Hamamsy, Luay Khoury, and Abdur-Rahim Syed, “Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa: How investors can support and enable growth” (Digital McKinsey, 2018), https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/middle%20east%20and%20africa/how%20investors%20can%20support%20entrepreneurship%20in%20the%20middle%20east%20and%20north%20africa/mena%20entrepreneurship%20article-final%20version-for%20viewing%20(003).ashx.
  32. Thomas Hill and Sarah Yerkes, “A New Strategy for US Engagement in North Africa: A Report of the North Africa Working Group” (United States Institute of Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2021), https://carnegieendowment.org/files/HillYerkes-ANewStrategyforUSEngagementinNorthAfrica-Feb2021.pdf.
  33. Jon Temin, “Civil Society Should Be at the Center of Foreign Policy,” Lawfare blog on LawfareBlog.com, March 1, 2021, https://www.lawfareblog.com/civil-society-should-be-center-foreign-policy; and Thomas Carothers and Frances Z. Brown, “The Chastened Power: How a Post-Trump America Can Support Democracy Abroad,” American Purpose, March 10, 2021, https://www.americanpurpose.com/articles/the-chastened-power/.
  34. Daphne McCurdy and Charles Thepaut, “In Syria, Put Humanitarian Aid Ahead of a Political Solution,” War on the Rocks, December 17, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/in-syria-put-humanitarian-aid-ahead-of-a-political-solution/.
  35. “Yemen,” United Nations World Food Programme, https://www.wfp.org/yemen-crisis.
  36. “Deadly Consequences: Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19,” Human Rights Watch, September 14, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/09/14/deadly-consequences/obstruction-aid-yemen-during-covid-19.
  37. “Medical flights start from Yemen’s Sanaa in diplomatic breakthrough,” Reuters, February 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/yemen-security/update-4-medical-flights-start-from-yemens-sanaa-in-diplomatic-breakthrough-idUSL8N2A32MR.
  38. Frances Z. Brown, “Dilemmas of Stabilization Assistance: The Case of Syria” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 26, 2018), https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/10/26/dilemmas-of-stabilization-assistance-case-of-syria-pub-77574.
  39. Daphne McCurdy, “What America Can Learn from its Mistakes in Syria,” War on the Rocks, February 3, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/02/what-america-can-learn-from-its-mistakes-in-syria/.
  40. Thomas M. Hill, “Peace in Libya will Have To Start with its People,” United States Institute of Peace, April 22, 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/04/peace-libya-will-have-start-its-people.
  41. Stephanie Turco Williams and Jeffrey Feltman, “Can a political breakthrough mend a broken Libya?,” Order from Chaos blog on Brookings.edu, February 17, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/02/17/can-a-political-breakthrough-mend-a-broken-libya/.
  42. “Stabilization Assistance Review: A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Government Efforts To Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas” (State Department, 2018), https://www.state.gov/reports/stabilization-assistance-review-a-framework-for-maximizing-the-effectiveness-of-u-s-government-efforts-to-stabilize-conflict-affected-areas-2018/.
  43. Anne Woods Patterson, “We Have to Be There,” The Foreign Service Journal, 96 no. 7 (September 2019), https://www.afsa.org/we-have-be-there.
  44. Miller and Mahanty, “U.S. Security Aid is a Faith-Based Policy.”
  45. “Climate change is making the Arab world more miserable,” The Economist, June 2, 2018, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/05/31/climate-change-is-making-the-arab-world-more-miserable.
  46. “When Rain Turns to Dust” (International Committee of the Red Cross, July 9, 2020), https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/topic/file_plus_list/rain_turns_to_dust_climate_change_conflict.pdf.
  47. Helen Lackner and Abulrahman Al-Eryani, “Yemen’s Environmental Crisis is the Biggest Risk for its Future” (The Century Foundation, December 14, 2020), https://tcf.org/content/report/yemens-environmental-crisis-biggest-risk-future/.
  48. Henry Fountain, “Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change,” The New York Times, March 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/science/earth/study-links-syria-conflict-to-drought-caused-by-climate-change.html.
  49. “Environmental Impact Assessment,” U.S. Agency for International Development, March 31, 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/environmental-policy-roadmap/environmental-impact-assessment.
  50. “Nature and National Security in the Middle East,” The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/nature-national-security-middle-east/.
  51. Melissa G. Dalton et al., “Oversight and Accountability in U.S. Security Sector Assistance,” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 2018), https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180207_Dalton_OversightAccountability_Web.pdf.
  52. Dominic Dudley, “U.S. Arms Sales to the Middle East have Soared in Value This Year,” Forbes (December 16, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2019/12/16/arms-sales-middle-east-soar/?sh=25ad5cb5fea8.
  53. Reuters Staff, “UAE confirms it inked $23 billion deal to buy F-35 jets, drones from U.S.,” Reuters, January 22, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-emirates-f35/uae-confirms-it-inked-23-billion-deal-to-buy-f-35-jets-drones-from-u-s-idUSKBN29R238.
  54. Julia Simon, “Egypt May Not Need Fighter Jets, But The U.S. Keeps Sending Them Anyway,” NPR, August 8, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/08/08/209878158/egypt-may-not-need-fighter-jets-but-u-s-keeps-sending-them-anyway.
  55. Bruce Riedel, “It’s time to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” Order from Chaos blog on Brookings.edu, February 4, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/02/04/its-time-to-stop-us-arms-sales-to-saudi-arabia/.
  56. Ellen Knickmeyer, “Biden ending US support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen,” AP News, February 4, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/biden-end-support-saudi-offenseive-yemen-b68f58493dbfc530b9fcfdb80a13098f.
  57. Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz, and Stanley Reed, “Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran,” The New York Times, September 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-refineries-drone-attack.html; and “UN humanitarian office puts Yemen war dead at 233,000, mostly from ‘indirect causes,’” UN News, December 1, 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/12/1078972#:~:text=Almost%20a%20quarter%20of%20a,the%20world's%20worst%20humanitarian%20crisis.
  58. Knickmeyer, “Biden ending support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen.”
  59. Fareed Zakaria, “Fareed sits down with Iran’s Foreign Minister,” CNN, September 25, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2017/09/25/exp-gps-0924-zarif-interview-iran.cnn.
  60. Ken Pollack, “Armies of Sand: Exploring Arab Military Effectiveness,” American Enterprise Institute, August 28, 2019, https://www.aei.org/special-features/armies-of-sand-exploring-arab-military-effectiveness/.
  61. Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas Heras, and Kaleigh Thomas, “Slow and Steady: Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare” (Center for a New American Security, April 2019), https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/CNAS+Report+-+Irregular+Warfare+-+final.pdf.
  62. David Witty, “The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service” (Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, June 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/david-witty-paper_final_web.pdf.
  63. Goldenberg, Heras, and Thomas, “Slow and Steady.”
  64. Casey L. Addis, “U.S. Security Assistance to Lebanon,” R40485 (Congressional Research Service, January 19, 2011), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R40485.pdf.
  65. Hijab Shah and Melissa Dalton, “Playing Politics: International Security Sector Assistance and the Lebanese Military’s Changing Role” (Carnegie Middle East Center, September 2020), https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/09/07/playing-politics-international-security-sector-assistance-and-lebanese-military-s-changing-role-pub-82663.
  66. Goldenberg, Heras, and Thomas, “Slow and Steady.”

Authors

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expert with ext...

  • Daphne McCurdy

    Center for Strategic and International Studies

    Daphne McCurdy is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Fellow with The Century Foundation, focusing on conflict, governance, and U....

  • Kaleigh Thomas

    Associate Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Kaleigh Thomas is the Associate Fellow for the Middle East Security Program and 2020 recipient of the 1LT Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., USA Award at CNAS. She also serves as the cof...

  • Sydney Scarlata

    Intern, Middle East Security Program

    Sydney Scarlata is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Before joining CNAS, Scarlata inte...

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