The $105 million was released last week after being held up without public explanation by the White House, despite support from Congress and national security officials.
“I don’t immediately ascribe malevolent or mistaken intent on the part of the administration,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee holding a hearing on the protests in Lebanon and Iraq. “But that’s something we will learn in the hearing.”
The session is taking place the same day the House Judiciary Committee is holding a public hearing on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, an inquiry centered on the administration’s withholding of aid to Ukraine at the same time Trump and his allies were pressing the government there to begin an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and his son.
Although there’s no indication of similar circumstances in the delay of the Lebanon aid, Romney and Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in interviews that the delay raises questions about the administration’s policies in the Middle East.
“It’s still a mystery to me as to why it took so long and why we undermined the Lebanese armed forces by delaying the money,” added Murphy, who traveled with Romney to the region earlier this year.
They and other members of the committee will question Joey Hood, the principal deputy assistant secretary of State at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Although the topic is the impact on American policy of the anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq, he’s the first administration to publicly testify since the aid money was released.
“We’re going to try to get to the bottom of why the aid was held up,” said Murphy, who was in Lebanon over the Thanksgiving recess.
Beyond questions about the holdup in aid, senators are expected to ask about multiple aspects of the administration’s plans for the region amid frustration with what they describe as the lack of a coherent or comprehensive U.S. approach to foreign policy.
Murphy places the blame for the confusion squarely on the Trump White House. Romney said his frustrations go beyond that to long-standing issues dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But both senators say they want better answers from administration officials about its policies.
“The United States is bungling this moment,” Murphy said. “These are remarkable, courageous protest movements whose demands often align with U.S. interests and yet we seem to be completely screwing up the moment.”
“What is the administration’s policy in the Middle East?” Romney asked. “Do we want to play a very active role in shaping developments there or are we trying to play as minimal a role as possible in a face-saving way with the hope of just getting out of the way?”
Both Romney and Murphy argue that the U.S. should take an active part, along with allies, in supporting “positive developments” in the Middle East.
Lebanon is reeling under its worst financial crisis in decades as authorities struggle to form a government after the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri following weeks of mass protests over corruption and deteriorating living standards. The country’s central bank announced plans to slash interest rates Tuesday in an attempt to ease the crisis.
Last week, the Trump administration released the $105 million for the Lebanese armed forces, who lawmakers say are helping to counter Iran’s influence in the region. Some pro-Israel lawmakers have argued that military funds should be suspended because the armed forces have been compromised by the militant group Hezbollah, which has considerable influence in Lebanon and is backed by Iran.
In Iraq, people fed up with corruption and the slow pace of recovery from the wreckage left by the war with Islamic State have been in the streets protesting since early October. They have channeled their anger into demands for the abolition of the country’s sectarian political system, which was set up by the U.S. after it overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“We are going to have to reassess what our objectives and strategies will be in each corner of the globe,” Romney said. “Withdrawing from the world is not the answer.”