WASHINGTON — A senior US senator said Thursday he would seek an emergency appropriation of "multiple billions" of dollars to help Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to help them cope with the fallout from the war with Islamic State group.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the money is desperately needed to help deal with the security and refugee situations in places like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. The comments came just a few days after he returned from a recent congressional delegation visit to the Middle East.
"I was stunned at how things have deteriorated over there," said Graham, who serves on the Armed Services Committee and as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
Graham issued a dire warning that Syria's neighbors are suffering severe stresses as a result of the political and refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war and the overrun of parts of Syria and Iraq by Islamic State rebels.
"If you don't think this is an emergency, you go yourself," Graham said. "If you don't think what's happening in the Sinai (Peninsula) needs to be dealt with quickly, then you didn't see what I saw. If you don't think there's an emergency brewing … I think you're wrong."
Graham said he wants an emergency appropriation specifically for Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, to provide them with better weaponry and equipment to secure their borders against ISIS fighters. Additional funds would also go to Israel to boost their security operations.
"Are we throwing good money after bad? I don't think so, but I'm running out of ideas," he said. "If we don't get a handle on this civil war in Syria, I just don't know how much longer Lebanon and Jordan can take it."
Graham sees the emergency funds as the first step in a larger "Marshall plan" for the Middle East, with western countries helping to rebuild security and infrastructure in the region after more than a decade of turmoil and war. He posited nations could spend 10 percent of their Islamic State war budgets on aid for vulnerable states, coupled with preferential loan agreements.
An Uphill Fight
But a US spending plan is likely to meet strong resistance among Graham's fellow conservatives on Capitol Hill, who are already embroiled in internal fights over federal spending for next year and decades to come. To boot, some members may be resistant to arming Gulf Arab states, Graham acknowledged.
Defense hawks in Congress have repeatedly lamented what they see as a lack of a coherent strategy for dealing with the turmoil in Syria from the White House, and refused to deal with a host of budget authority issues related to the ongoing fight there until the president offers a more satisfactory plan.
"I think a lot of Democrats will welcome this, but the question is the Republicans," he said. "I would love to have the debate."
Graham deflected questions about how his emergency appropriation would impact the current two-year budget deal and ongoing spending caps facing federal programs. But he did say that those fiscal worries shouldn't overshadow the global security problems threatening US security.
"So to my budget hawk friends, who are mostly Republican, I will send the ambassadors – you tell me where I'm wrong," Graham said.
Graham sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and said he'll work with chamber leaders on a formal proposal in weeks to come. Fiscal 2017 budget discussions have stalled in both chambers in recent weeks, even with the spending framework spelled out in the two-year budget deal passed last fall.
Evolving US-Egyptian Ties
The call comes just over a year after the fight with the Islamic State spurred the White House to lift an executive hold on weapons sales to Egypt enacted amid Arab Spring-related human rights concerns. The Obama administration, when it lifted the freeze, pledged sales of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits — plus $1.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) for Egypt.
The aid Graham proposed for Egypt includes intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and counter-roadside bomb technology for use in the Sinai, though he vague about what.
On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan was in Egypt, leading a Congressional delegation as it met with Egyptian leaders, including President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Amid local and international anger over human rights problems, Graham defended Al-Sisi as "the right guy at the right time," but said, "I want to see progress in a way that I think is achievable." He also said the Egypt-Israeli relationship is "at an all-time high."
Graham said Egypt is too crucial an ally, to both the United States and Israel, not to bolster Sisi's government militarily to fight terrorism, and economically, if he improves on human rights. Graham said he would ask the Pentagon to approve Egypt's requests for additional military equipment.
"If Al-Sisi did something that would be seen by me and others as a real serious move on the rights front, it makes it easier for a guy like me to help," he said.
He argued is Egypt is a young democracy under siege and in danger of collapse unless the US comes to its aid.
"They have a bunch of requests for additional military capabilities that would help neutralize and eventually destroy ISIL in the Sinai," Graham said. "It is in our national security interest that this government succeed when it comes to dealing with the terrorist threat."
Israel needs more than the $3.1 billion the US provides Israel in FMF, Graham said. And to protect its borders, Israel needs new capabilities "now, not ten years from now."
The comments come as the two countries are negotiating the top-line on an American ten-year military aid package to Israel. The proposed package, a follow-on to the $30 billion, 10-year memorandum of understanding signed in 2007, would grant Israel reprogramming authority over a larger pool of money, but would block the US Congress from regular increases to the funding levels.
Meanwhile, Israelis remain "nervous" about increased US military aid to their neighbors, according to Graham. Israel's opposition to Qatar buying F-15SE Silent Eagles is said to be holding up a potential deal worth $40 billion.
More broadly, Israel argues that the US must be careful of introducing new weapons into the region given the fast pace of regime change. A friend today may be a foe tomorrow, able to use US arms against it.
"I say to my Israel friends, 'We need partners,' and partners without capability are just paper partners," Graham said. "So'll probably be in the camp of pushing increased capability to Gulf Arab states, understanding Israel's concerns."