Ukraine, however, isn’t the only country giving rise to questions about how the United States wields its aid.
Foreign financial assistance — such as military funding or trade benefits, among its many forms — is a powerful way for Washington to build up allies and shape its interests abroad. And Trump’s “America First” model — broadly defined as a more isolationist foreign policy — has left many leaders around the world wondering what that actually means in practice for their countries and priorities.
This week, for example, there were three very different conversations around U.S. financial assistance in Cameroon, Lebanon and Israel.
The one constant in all of this is that there often doesn’t seem to be a consistent carrot or stick guiding these foreign policy decisions. Here’s a look at three approaches in the news this week.
Cameroon and surprising language on human rights
Trump told Congress in a letter that Cameroon’s security forces were committing extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. The government’s failure to respond to U.S. concerns, the letter continued, contravened the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which granted these trade benefits.
In Cameroon, fighting between English-speaking separatists and majority French-speaking government troops has helped fuel a secessionist movement. The conflict has left at least 3,000 dead and roughly 500,000 displaced over the past three years. President Paul Biya, a French speaker, was reelected in a disputed vote in 2018, extending his nearly 40 years in power. The United States had already scaled back some security assistance in February, citing the political violence.
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney also issued a statement Friday praising the move for “upholding the human rights criteria.”
Trump’s direct appeal to human rights as a condition of U.S. aid, however, is more an exception than a norm.
As Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post reported this week, Egypt is facing “what human rights activists say is the biggest and most widespread crackdown since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi came to power six years ago.”
Nonetheless, the story continued, “There has been no public criticism of the abuses by the United States, which provides $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Egypt, or any other foreign government. President Trump has remained a staunch supporter of Sissi, widely viewed as the most authoritarian leader in Egypt’s modern history.”
Lebanon and a selective withdrawal from the Middle East
The development came just two days after the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and amid widespread anti-government protests rocking Lebanese politics — all while the country’s economy is on the verge of collapse.
The military assistance to Lebanon included weapons for border security and night-vision goggles, Reuters reported. In May, Washington had argued that the aid was needed to help Lebanon, which borders Syria and Israel, protect its security.
“The officials did not say why the aid was blocked,” Reuters reported. “One of the sources said the State Department did not give Congress a reason for the decision.”
Israeli officials, meanwhile, said they had been lobbying for the cut.
“We made it clear that any aid meant to guarantee the stability of Lebanon needs to be conditioned on Lebanon dealing with Hezbollah’s precision-guided missiles,” an Israeli official told the Times of Israel on Wednesday.
The United States has placed economic sanctions on Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group that’s now part of the Lebanese government. Critics, however, contend that further sanctions on Hezbollah could undermine America’s political leverage in Lebanon and in the related Syrian war and cold war with Iran — a void Russia has increasingly stepped into.
“Though Washington has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization for its actions around the world and its close relationship to Iran, the group has also baked itself into legitimate parts of the Lebanese state, making it difficult for the United States to target it without also affecting the rest of the country,” the New York Times wrote last year.
Israel and an increasingly partisan aid debate
The Trump administration has cut off all aid to Palestinian political and refugee-related institutions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in Gaza, including the $360 million it contributed to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) until 2017 and millions more to the semiautonomous Palestinian Authority. The embattled Palestinian leadership, in turn, boycotted the United States’s controversial conference in Bahrain this summer, which the United States said was intended to focus on boosting the Palestinian economy; Palestinians called it biased against Palestinian interests from the start.
Washington has described the cuts as intended in part to curb corruption and push Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel. Palestinian leadership, however, has accused the United States of losing legitimacy in the peace process by only taking stances favorable to Israel. Palestinians cite Israel’s continued expansion of settlements on land they say is theirs — and that the U.S. ambassador to Israel has supported — as one example.
But while the Trump administration isn’t talking about conditions on aid to Israel, the Democratic Party increasingly is. Three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — all spoke this week in support of putting political restrictions on some of the $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military assistance to Israel.
“If Israel’s government continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the U.S. should make clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation,” Warren told audiences at a conference put on by the liberal Jewish organization J Street in Washington.
Sanders, who’s been the most vocal on the issue of conditioning military aid to Israel, echoed the sentiment, saying that the United States cannot give “carte blanche to the Israeli government,” Sean Sullivan and David Weigel of The Post reported.
Former vice president Joe Biden rejected the idea as “outrageous.”
These conversations, The Post continued, “highlighted the [Democratic] party’s shift in recent years toward embracing more restrictive relations with a longtime ally. As conservative Israeli political leaders pursue a hard-line agenda and cozy up to Trump, Democrats are rethinking their relationship with Israel, holding a sometimes messy intraparty debate that has cut along generational and ideological lines.”