State Department to Congress: More money for Arab countries

American influence in the Middle East will dwindle to Iran's benefit if the United States responds to the Arab Spring upheaval by pulling government aid, the Obama administration's top diplomat for the region told Congress Wednesday.

Instead, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman testified that lawmakers should approve the administration's request to create a $770 million incentive fund to support democratic and free-market reforms in the region. The fund would address the root causes of the upheaval, Feltman said, while “lack of these reforms will continue to undermine our interests across the board.”

“During this historic period of transition, the United States government is faced with a clear choice: On the one hand, we could disengage, and wait, and see what happens. On the other hand, we could engage pro-actively and seek to shape outcomes that are more favorable to our interests,” Feltman told the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. “I understand the temptation to wait to deliver assistance until we are certain of what will happen. But that's a recipe for diminished influence.”

Republicans on the panel were not convinced.

Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said he was “cautiously optimistic” a year ago, but the rise of Islamic parties and the violence in Syria have darkened that outlook.

“While I am sure that the administration understands the nature of the challenges, I am not so sure that its policies are the most effective in addressing them,” he said.

He went on to criticize the proposed Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund as something that “appears to share the same core mechanism as many other assistance programs.”

“Furthermore,” Chabot said, “I fear this fund risks reinforcing a chronic bad behavior in the implementation of our foreign assistance: substituting money for thoughtful policy. Reflexively throwing taxpayer dollars at problems is not effective policy and I fear the lack of details about how this fund will operate – as well as the very broad authorities requested – make it more likely that the money will at best be wasted and will at worst enable hasty and reckless policy.”

Feltman however testified that the disbursement of any money will be tied to measurable progress on the ground.

The request for the new program comes as the State Department is already under fire for releasing $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in March despite new congressional requirement linking it to democratic progress. Feltman said Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham Clinton5 ways politics could steal the show at Oscars Lewandowski: Perez ‘doesn’t understand what’s going on in America’ Five takeaways from the Scott Pruitt emails MORE had made the right call releasing the aid because of the progress Egypt has made on political and human rights despite its crackdown on U.S. pro-democracy groups.