Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following remarks today at a Heritage Foundation event titled, “The U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Partnership and Its Importance to Regional Stability”:

“I am honored to be here today with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed as the Heritage Foundation recognizes Tunisia’s remarkable progress over the last six years, and its growing importance as an emerging democratic partner to the United States. At a time of increasing sectarianism and extremism throughout the region, Tunisia’s commitment to democratic principles and practices, compromise and consensus, stands as a powerful model for other nations across the region and the world.

“Since overthrowing its dictatorship in 2010, Tunisia has demonstrated an inspiring commitment to the cause of freedom, democracy, and human dignity that inspired popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa. What is more unique is that Tunisia is succeeding in translating basic principles into the hard work of governance—painstakingly pursuing a largely peaceful democratic transition, building political stability and strengthening national unity in the face of so many daunting challenges.

“You only need look across Massachusetts Avenue at our own Congress to see that democracy is hard work. Which makes it all the more impressive that Tunisia’s political leadership, including Minister Chahed, continue to place national unity above partisan politics time after time. In so doing, they have helped to prevent outbreaks of major violence that have plagued so many other transitioning countries.

“An equal share of the credit here goes to the many members of Tunisia’s strong and vibrant civil society, who have proven instrumental in overseeing a national dialogue, helping to bridge deep political divisions, and mediating disagreements over the country’s future. These committed Tunisians, including the media and key religious institutions, have come together at critical times, working hand in hand, to stabilize the political, economic, and security situation in the country.

“Tunisia’s ongoing political transformation has not been easy, nor is it complete. While the last six years have witnessed much progress, hard reforms remain and more must be done to address Tunisia’s persistent challenges, including poor living conditions in the country’s interior, rising unemployment, weak infrastructure, and rampant corruption. Institutions that can help address these issues must be strengthened, and more political support should be given to the government’s fight against corruption. While the ultimate responsibility for reform lies with the Tunisian government and people, the international community can play a much more effective role in helping Tunisia achieve greater stability and democracy.

“That includes the United States. I know that many of you share my concern with the President’s 2018 budget request, which proposed deep reductions in assistance programs to Tunisia. All of us recognize that there are many domestic priorities that require additional taxpayer dollars, especially rebuilding our military, but to slash U.S. assistance to a democratic partner on the front lines of the fight against ISIS at a time of growing tumult in the broader Middle East would be both misguided and dangerous.

“Our assistance to Tunisia is a good investment in our own security. Already, U.S. military assistance, development funds, and democracy promotion activities are paying dividends. They are bolstering police training programs, helping to create an independent judicial system, training Members of Parliament in public policy and how to advance legislation, and funding critical research opportunities and scholarships for Tunisian students and policymakers who are eager to serve their country.

“Furthermore, through our strategic partnership, U.S. assistance has been instrumental in professionalizing Tunisia’s armed forces and strengthening its counterterrorism capabilities.  Tunisia is emerging as a determined and increasingly effective force in the fight against ISIS and has made important progress in securing its border with Libya and preventing the spread of extremist groups and arms smuggling. To be clear, more work must be done to complete the transformation of Tunisia’s security forces to an expeditionary force that is organized and postured to defend the Tunisian people against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the myriad of other regional security challenges.  The U.S. will continue to stand by Tunisia in support of these efforts. 

“The enduring nature of the U.S. – Tunisian security relationship was solidified when Tunisia was designated a Major Non-NATO ally in 2015 – only the 16th country to receive such a designation. Since then, Tunisia has continued to grow its capabilities, offering invaluable support to U.S. operations in the region, and playing a vital role in Operation Inherent Resolve. And this past June, the Tunisian army participated in the Joint Readiness Training Center rotation for the first time. 

“Ultimately, there is no better response to the endless cycle of violence and radicalization than Tunisia’s continued democratization. If Tunisia remains committed to democratic ideals and the difficult but necessary institutional reforms, the United States will do all that it can to provide  the support that Tunisia needs. 

“For the past six years, Tunisians have fought and sacrificed greatly to preserve their young democracy. The Tunisian people should take pride in all that they have accomplished. Although the road ahead will be fraught with challenges, I am confident that the Tunisian people can and will succeed.  The world needs a democratic and prosperous Tunisia, and I pledge that the United States will stand by Tunisia every step of the way.

“Thank you again.”