Border wall fight could jeopardize funding for US bases in the Middle East

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Article Summary
The fight over funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall could impact key US bases in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump’s fight to secure funding for the southern border with Mexico could jeopardize funding for key US bases that support operations in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a Pentagon list released this month.

As the White House considers what has been termed the “cost plus 50” plan to charge US allies in Germany and Japan for basing American troops, the Defense Department released a list of projects that could be defunded to finance $3.6 billion of border wall, a key Trump campaign pledge that congressional Democrats aren’t interested in paying for.

Funding for a $26.3 million fleet maintenance facility in Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and nearly $513 million worth of construction in Germany to support Marines, fighter pilots and special operations forces in Africa are among $4.3 billion in projects eligible to be cut. Also on the chopping block is a $14.3 million project at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, from where the United States has run many of its counter-Islamic State strike missions in Syria.

“I can’t find a case where we put so much overseas basing on the line,” said Rick Berger, a former Senate staffer who is now a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “I think allies are keeping quiet right now particularly after cost plus 50 because they don’t want to be a target of the president.”

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While US allies in the Middle East and North Africa have stayed quiet, the battle over wall funding has already raised significant concerns inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., wrote a letter to Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist rejecting the department’s request to reprogram $1 billion in counter-narcotics funding to build 57 miles of wall along the southern border. In internal Pentagon memos obtained by the Los Angeles Times, US Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller said troop deployments to the border had forced the cancellation of some training exercises.

Some Middle East-related projects included on the list, such as upgrades to al-Udeid air base in Qatar and al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, appear to be safe according to the Pentagon’s own criteria, which exclude projects with projected award dates in the current fiscal year. Al-Udeid, home to 11,000 US troops, is a major hub for US military operations in the Middle East and provides a command center for troops and a home base for intelligence beamed in from places ranging from Egypt to Afghanistan.

If the Pentagon adds to the list of projects on the chopping block, analysts say, already shaken allies will be truly rattled.

“If this step to remove some of the [military construction] is the first in a succession, that’s when I start to worry,” said Melissa Dalton, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “If it’s a one-off thing it may be possible for DoD [Department of Defense] to kind of frame that in a way that there is this sort of give and take in US priorities at the moment.”

As the White House and Congress have battled over possible funding for the border wall, Russia and China, the United States’ two biggest rivals, have sought to extend their military footprint throughout the region.

China has set up a base near US troops in Djibouti that could give the Chinese reach into the Red Sea, and Russia recently struck a deal to allow military overflight and landing rights in Egypt. Cairo receives $1.3 billion in US military aid each year.

The wall fight has also impacted the acting defense secretary’s dialogue with allies. During a visit to Washington last week, French Defense Minister Florence Parly appeared to publicly question America’s commitment to NATO, declaring, “It’s Article 5, not Article F-35,” a play on words referring to the alliance’s mutual self-defense clause and the newest US-made jet. Parly also said she was unable to get clarity on US policy in Syria.

Threats to cut military construction abroad to fund Trump’s wall has done little to reassure US allies.

“Our [military] construction expenditures abroad are a big way of how we do burden sharing,” said Berger. “Do you want to pick a school in Germany or the vehicle maintenance facility? There are no good choices that don’t cut really deep.”

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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