Politics

05.29.14

Obama Asks for a $5 Billion Blank Check to Fight Terror—and Congress Doesn't Want to Sign

The president says he wants Congress to give him $5 billion next year to fight terrorism, but the news came as a shock to lawmakers—and they are not about to give up the money easily.

President Obama’s Wednesday announcement that he wants $5 billion more next year to fight terrorism came as a complete surprise to the congressmen who will have to give him the money, and they reacted Wednesday with confusion and skepticism.

The new fund, if Congress goes along, would be added to the administration’s Pentagon budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, inside what’s known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. (That’s the cash that’s supposed to be used to help fight America’s wars, and is not considered part of the Defense Department’s core budget.) Experts and former officials warned that unless the administration comes to Congress with detailed plans of how the money will be spent and why those tasks can’t be completed inside the Pentagon’s already-huge budget, lawmakers are not likely to sign off on the idea. The total lack of administration outreach to Congress so far is not a good start.

At West Point, Obama said he was “calling on Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines”—from Yemen to Libya to Syria to Mali.

Lawmakers were surprised when the president said he needed them to help start the new fund, considering the administration had given them no warning and no details of the plan to spend the $5 billion they were being asked to disburse. Leaders of committees that will have to appropriate the money, in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle, told The Daily Beast there had been no briefings or consultations about the fund before its announcement.

“We weren’t consulted at all, so it’s a little hard to comment on something we know nothing about,” Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, told The Daily Beast.

The offices of top appropriators in the House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, also said Wednesday they had no information about the fund. One GOP senator said he is skeptical the new fund will do any good, considering the considerable amount of money that the administration has already asked for to bolster allies against terrorism next year.

“It’s a mystery fund. It’s sadly typical that they haven’t worked through the details. The worst thing is to announce an initiative and never to have told the committees of jurisdiction.”

“$5 billion in additional off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations funding is not an acceptable substitute for determined leadership to confront the growing threat of global terrorism,” Sen. Mark Kirk told The Daily Beast. “The administration has already asked for nearly $8 billion in International Security Assistance funding, which includes both international military training and financing programs. I am curious to learn more how this new ‘fund’ would make Americans safer and enhance the United States’ leadership abroad.”

In his speech, Obama noted that “a critical focus” of this new fund would be “the ongoing crisis in Syria.”

A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that any effort to train the armed Syrian rebels would have to come from the new fund, if it materializes. The official said the fund was “to deal with different contingencies across the region,” and was affordable because of the president’s decision to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

“We want a fund like this precisely so we have flexibility, so that if we need to surge particular resources to a particular counterterrorism partner we can do that,” the official said.

A White House fact sheet distributed Wednesday said the fund would be used for three tasks: expanding the training and equipping of foreign militaries, bolstering the counterterrorism capabilities of allies, and supporting efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorism ideology.

That’s not going to be enough clarity for a Congress that is already skeptical of the administration’s approach to counterterrorism and inclined against granting President Obama the authority to spend billions of taxpayer dollars in a tight fiscal environment, said Gordon Adams, who served as the top national security budget official in the Clinton White House.

“It’s a mystery fund. It’s sadly typical that they haven’t worked through the details. The worst thing is to announce an initiative and never to have told the committees of jurisdiction,” he said. “Congress’s instinctive reaction when surprised is to rise up in resistance.”

The proposed fund is too broad and vague, Adams said. Creating a multibillion-dollar fund to fight terrorism ignores the divergent causes and symptoms of conflict and violence in different countries, such as Pakistan, Mali, or Syria, he said.

“Terrorism is a tactic, it’s not a thing. They have now defined the United States as being in a global confrontation with a tactic, which is different everywhere it appears,” Adams said.

The last time the Obama administration proposed such a fund, Congress rejected the proposal. The State Department held an elaborate rollout in 2011 for its request for $770 million to start a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) fund, to respond to the events of the Arab Spring.

Congress refused to appropriate the money out of concern there were scant specifics about how the money would be spent. Ambassador Bill Taylor, former head of the MENA Transitions Office at the State Department, said Wednesday perhaps this time would be different.

“I think it is more focused this time. It’s focused on counterterrorism, which even though it’s a broad topic, it has a clear security rationale which will make it a stronger proposal,” he said. “I’m sure the administration has learned lessons on this… It’s going to be important to engage the members and staff early.”