Just three days after the Treasury announced that the United States had hit its own debt limit, President Obama proposed relieving a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt – a tough political sell to Americans struggling with their own debt burdens, and problematic, but not out of reach, for appropriators on Capitol Hill.
To take the issue to American taxpayers at “at a time when South Carolina is flat broke” is a risk, he adds, but one he says he is willing to take. “The president captured the moment in which we live. These are historic times.”
A much tougher sell will be the president’s call Thursday for Israel to negotiate a return to pre-1967 borders, just five days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress while on his visit to Washington.
“The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” the president said in his much anticipated Middle East policy address at the State Department. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”
Several GOP presidential contenders slammed Mr. Obama’s comments on Israel. “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a statement. “He has disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace.”
Congressional Republicans picked up similar themes. “The president’s reference to pre-1967 borders as the basis for peace undermines our ally Israel’s negotiating position, demonstrates insensitivity to the security threats Israel faces on a daily basis, and ignores the historical context that has shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than 60 years,” said freshman Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, in a statement.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the president for imposing “new pressure on Israel to make concessions on its borders,” without calls on Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Top Democrats defended the president’s approach. “This speech was not intended to be a comprehensive statement on all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations or US relations with both parties,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “For example, I have full confidence that the administration would veto a unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN Security Council,” he added.
Mr. Obama also affirmed US commitments to Israel’s security, including assurances that the US will continue to stand against attempts to single out Israel for criticism in international forums.
“Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.”
Other presidents have made similar statements. But the timing of these remarks – and the ongoing sweeping changes in the region – make them especially volatile in a highly partisan and deeply divided Congress.
In addition to his comments on the peace process, President Obama laid out three principles to guide US policy toward the region:
• Opposition to the use of violence and repression against people of the region.
• Support of universal rights, including free speech, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to chose their own leaders.
• Support of political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa “that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”
The protest movements sweeping the Middle East represent “shouts of human dignity,” the president said. “So we face an historic opportunity,” he said. “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.”
For a Congress embroiled in its own budget wars, including deep cuts in services to low-income Americans, finding the funding to help boost economic growth and opportunity to help meet those “legitimate aspirations” overseas is not obvious.
“We can provide help and support to people who want to do the right thing, but I don’t know where [the president] is going to get the funding – and I’m an appropriator,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who in addition to serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee also chairs the Intelligence panel.
“The US can’t fight another civil war,” she adds, citing previous and ongoing conflicts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. “That we cannot be everybody’s keeper in the world is something that we ought to think about.”
Most Americans tell pollsters that the US spends about 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid. In fact, it’s about 1 percent. That perception makes calls for more foreign aid – or, in the case of Egypt – debt relief – a heavy lift.
“The president has to make the argument that the long-run success of a truly democratic movement in the Middle East will save us a great deal of money and protect us – and it’s a hard argument to make,” says Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, who often speaks for Democrats on military issues.
“In reality, the billions and billions of dollars we spent for military operations in Iraq dwarfs aid to Egypt, which might be a much more effective way to accomplish our goals,” he adds.
In addition to $1 billion in debt relief, Obama also pledged to help Egypt regain access to markets with $1 billion in loan guarantees to finance infrastructure and job creation. He also promised to help “newly democratic governments” to recover stolen assets.