Analysis

Donald Trump Blasts U.S. Spending in the Middle East as 'Stupid,' Then Increases It

Just as Rex Tillerson tours the region, Trump’s budget makes it clear he was only playing to the base when he blasted 'stupid spending'

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

Believe it or not, campaign season is well underway again in the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump published his budget for 2019 this week wrapped in the political language that helped him win the presidency: attacking U.S. foreign policy and spending in the Middle East. 

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Trump began the rollout Monday, tweeting, “After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!”

However, once Trump’s $4 trillion-plus budget, that projects a $1 trillion or so federal deficit, was released it became abundantly clear that the president had only been playing politics. His budget proposes $686 billion in defense spending, the largest amount since 2011. And while much of the budget is dedicated to blunting Russia and North Korea (an additional $30 billion will go to the nuclear arsenal), the majority of it is devoted to Afghanistan and the Middle East. 

The day of Trump’s budget announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Cairo pledging support for Egypt, even though Trump had threatened to cut U.S. foreign aid to the country after it introduced a resolution at the UN condemning Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The next day Tillerson was in Kuwait, pledging $200 million more to the coalition fighting ISIS in Syria. Wednesday, now in Jordan, Tillerson announced a boost to its foreign aid too, also despite the country’s vote on Jerusalem at the UN. 

Trump did indeed slash funding – to the U.S. State Department and to USAID, by 26 percent, the largest department cut in the budget.

President Donald Trump's budget proposal for 2019 includes deep cuts in domestic programs and foreign aid. The budget outlines plans to continue to boost military spending while sharply reducing non-defense discretionary programs
Reuters Graphics by Matthew Weber and Ashlyn Still

Meanwhile in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took notice of Trump’s budget,  specifically taking issue with the Pentagon requesting $300 million for "train and equip activities" in Syria, which Erdogan interpreted as funding for the Kurdish YPG (“People’s Protection Units”), plus $250 million for Syrian “border security requirements.” 

"Our ally's decision to give financial support to the YPG (Kurdish militia)... will surely affect the decisions we will take," Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party in a speech in parliament on Tuesday.  

Reuters reported that Turkish media agreed with Erdogan, also interpreting Trump’s budget to mean that the Pentagon had allocated $550 million to the YPG – the Kurdish militia Turkey is itself fighting in Syria, at great cost.

A different kind of Republican

Trump has long distanced himself from traditional Republican rhetoric on the Middle East. When he called George W. Bush’s Iraq war policy “stupid” and sparred with Jeb Bush during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. His accusation that $7 trillion had been “stupidly spent” on the Middle East continues this line: Trump is accusing his predecessors of using that money in the Middle East rather than in America. That attack is very popular with voters across the political spectrum in the U.S.

By the way, $7 trillion seems to be an erroneous figure. According to the AP, the Pentagon estimates that “wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have directly cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.5 trillion.” During the 2016 election Trump claimed the U.S. had wasted $6 trillion in the Middle East – a claim Politifact dubbed as half-true. “Trump confused what’s been spent, and what is projected to be spent,” Politifact reported. That said, he’s right to note the large cost of U.S. intervention in the Middle East.”

Trump seems to have taken the figure from a Boston University study which claimed a cost of “the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria at about $3.6 trillion from 2001 to 2016, using the $1.6 trillion operations costs as a baseline but also accounting for counterterrorism costs.”

The president repeated the claim Monday at a White House meeting with officials and lawmakers on infrastructure: “As of a couple of months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. Seven trillion dollars. What a mistake. But it is what is. We’re trying to build roads and bridges and fix bridges that are falling down, and we have a hard time getting the money. It’s crazy.” 

He went on: “Think about it: As of a couple of months ago, $7 trillion in the Middle East, and the Middle East is far worse now than it was 17 years ago when they went in and not so intelligently, I have to say, went in. I’m being nice. So, it is a very sad thing,” he added. 

How Trump jumped from $6 trillion to $7 trillion is anyone's guess, especially as he would only be implicating himself as having added the addition trillion dollars of spending. 

In 2016 Trump was very successful campaigning against global trade agreements, U.S. foreign aid and U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, in much the same vein as Bernie Sanders. But now, as president, that same rhetoric will be less convincing: it is his own budget putting billions more of American taxpayer money into the Middle East.