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POLITICS-US: Congress Clears More Funds for Both War and Relief

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Dec 20 2007 (IPS) - Racing to adjourn for the year, the U.S. Congress this week approved a 560- billion-dollar omnibus 2008 appropriation that includes 70 billion dollars more for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and sizable increases in development, refugee, and disaster assistance.

The bill, which President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law later this week, provides for a nearly 50 percent increase – to 4.66 billion dollars – in spending on fighting diseases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, that particularly afflict developing countries.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a multilateral facility to which the administration has been reluctant to contribute, will get a record 845 million dollars, 120 million dollars more than last year’s appropriation.

At the same time, Congress approved 1.7 billion dollars for U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKOs) next year. While that was 600 million dollars more than Bush had requested, it still fell far short of the 2.3 billion dollars that Washington is supposed to pay as its share of the world body’s 10- billion-dollar regular and PKO budget.

As a result, U.S. outstanding arrears to the U.N. will rise more than 1.5 billion dollars, according to the Washington-based U.N. Foundation (UNF) whose president, former senator Timothy Wirth, noted that Washington’s failure to honour its treaty obligations “undermines the U.N., short-changes key allies, and does not help advance America’s reputation in the world.”

Both the administration and the opposition Democrats compromised in order to finish work on the 2008 appropriations bill before breaking for the Christmas holidays.

While Democrats prevailed on a number of key domestic priorities – such as funding for health care and heating subsidies for poor people, repairing transportation infrastructure, and strengthening the Freedom of Information Act – Bush did much better on foreign policy. His top agenda item was the 70 billion dollars in unrestricted funding for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because that amount fell short of the 200 billion dollars the administration has said it needs to finance the two wars through next September when the fiscal year ends, Bush will have to get supplemental funding from Congress some time next spring.

The fact that the majority Democrats failed to muster enough support to impose tough conditions on the aid, let alone a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq as they tried unsuccessfully to do several times over the last ten months, marked a major political victory for Bush. The administration’s position was boosted by the widespread impression that their controversial “Surge” strategy has succeeded in substantially reducing sectarian violence.

On less controversial foreign-aid issues, however, Democrats made headway in moving policy into line with their priorities. The 2008 appropriation was their first opportunity to re-shape the foreign-aid budget since they reclaimed control of both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections of Nov. 2006.

As a result, Congress not only sharply increased funding for Washington’s global health initiatives, but also provided about 1.8 billion dollars for child- survival and maternal-health programmes – a boost of nearly seven percent over the 2007 appropriation and almost 300 million dollars more than what Bush had requested.

At the same time, however, a veto threat by Bush succeeded in persuading the Democratic leadership to drop language that had been approved by both houses that would have eased the so-called Mexico City policy that bans any U.S. health-related aid from going to family-planning groups overseas that provide or promote abortion.

On bilateral development assistance, the 2008 appropriation provides 1.6 billion dollars, nearly an eight percent increase over the 2007 level and 600 million dollars more than what Bush had requested.

The biggest winner within the development assistance account was basic education programmes for which 400 million dollars of the total was earmarked. For all foreign-aid accounts, basic education in developing countries netted 700 million dollars.

For international disaster assistance, Congress approved a total of some 430 million dollars – nearly a 20 percent increase over the level approved for 2007 and more than 30 percent above what Bush had requested.

Congress also increased the migration and refugee account by a similar percentage – to just over 1.0 billion dollars – or almost 200 million dollars more than the 2007 level, in part as a result of growing concern about the plight of refugees from Iraq.

Much of the additional money for health, development, and humanitarian relief came at the expense of one of Bush’s signature programmes, the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which is designed to reward countries that are committed to U.S.-favoured political and economic reforms with higher aid levels.

Bush had requested 3.0 billion dollars for the MCA in 2008, but Congress, which has expressed disappointment with lengthy delays in the programme’s disbursement of past funding, approved barely half that amount – 200 million dollars less than it had appropriated for the MCA last year.

As for specific countries, Israel (2.4 billion dollars) and Egypt (1.3 billion dollars), will once again receive the bulk of the 4.6 billion dollars appropriated for military aid overseen by the State Department. The Pentagon has its own aid accounts.

The appropriation calls on Bush to withhold 100 million dollars of 412 million dollars in economic aid earmarked for Egypt until it improves its human- rights performance and proves that it is not aiding Islamist militants in Gaza.

Congress also imposed new restrictions on U.S. military and economic aid to Pakistan, which has received some 10 billion dollars in official U.S. aid since 2001 as an incentive for co-operation with Washington’s “war on terror.” Of the 650 million dollars earmarked for military and security assistance, 50 million dollars would be withheld until the administration certified that Islamabad had restored democratic rule and was co-operating fully in counter-terrorism efforts.

In addition, none of the 350 million dollars in economic aid authorised for Pakistan next year could take the form of cash transfers which lawmakers worried were being used as a slush fund for President Pervez Musharraf and the army. The aid instead will have to be allocated to specific projects monitored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The bill provides nearly 540 million dollars in emergency economic aid for Afghanistan, but requires the administration to first certify that the government of President Hamid Karzai is co-operating in efforts to eradicate poppy fields.

Darfur will also be a major beneficiary of U.S. aid in 2008. One third – or 550 million dollars – of Washington’s contribution to U.N. PKOs is earmarked for UNAMID, the U.N.-African Union force that is supposed to begin operations in Darfur January. Another 209 million dollars is earmarked for humanitarian programmes in the violence-torn Sudanese region.

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