Terms of Engagement

Slash and Burn

Congressional Republicans are bent on all but eliminating the U.S. government's foreign aid budget. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be the only one who can stop them.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration believes, more fervently than any of its predecessors, that helping weak and fragile states is a national security imperative. Obama said as much in one of his earliest campaign speeches, vowing to “roll back the tide of helplessness” in places that “stand on the brink of conflict or colapse.” The 2010 National Security Strategy lays out the argument comprehensively, asserting that “an aggressive and affirmative development agenda … can strengthen the regional partners we need to help us stop conflict and counter global criminal networks;” foster global prosperity; advance democracy; and “position ourselves to better address key global challenges.”

The administration’s commitment to those precepts is about to be sorely tested, however, by Republicans who don’t share its views. The new GOP majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has called for deep cuts in spending on international affairs. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, who chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has noted proudly that she presided over the third deepest cuts in spending for the current year of the 12 appropriations subcommittees. The $44.9 billion fiscal 2011 budget her subcommittee approved represents a cut of 8 percent from the 2010 budget, and 21 percent from the administration’s proposed 2011 budget. She and the House leadership have promised even deeper cuts for the coming year. “I will ensure,” Granger said in a statement, “that our foreign aid is not used as a stimulus bill for foreign countries.”

The ideological difference between the two sides is crisply captured by the refusal of the Republican-controlled House to include international affairs — which includes funding for the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), international bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as various development programs — in the national security budget, which has generally been spared the axe. The GOP House bill thus proposes very modest cuts for defense, but very deep cuts for diplomacy and development. This has produced a backlash among international-minded Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Both John McCain of Arizona and Richard Lugar of Indiana say they accept the administration’s argument that development assistance is a national security priority.

Well, that’s a relief. Maybe the Senate, which will take up the budget bill in early March, will undo the House’s handiwork which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said “will be devastating to national security.” But it’s not at all clear that the Senate Republicans mean the same thing as the president and the secretary of state when they talk about foreign aid. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has said that while he supports a “Middle East stability package” for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, there’s “not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program.” Sen. Lindsay Graham, who will play a key role in Senate negotiations, similarly distinguishes between funds that are “essential to the war effort” and “an account that can be reduced.”

House Republicans have said that they have protected funds for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, though in fact they proposed deep cuts in “economic support funds,” which serve as one of the chief sources for that money, including the $7.5 billion, five-year commitment to provide aid to Pakistan. This suggests room for a possible compromise: Restore the funds for Middle East allies and the war effort, and accept some or all of the other House cuts in funding for public health and food security, the Millennium Challenge Account, the World Bank, diplomats, and USAID officials. Of course, if you believe what the Obama administration believes, even this middle ground would be an utter catastrophe.

Here we come to the danger of the development-as-national security argument. The billions the U.S. spends trying to produce good government and promote economic growth in Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute the civilian side of the war on terror. That’s national security. The same cannot obviously be said for reducing AIDS, stabilizing food prices, or building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. That sounds like a moral rather a strategic good. So why preserve them from cuts in the face of massive deficits?

The short answer is that they achieve real results at a price that is practically a rounding error in the federal budget. The AfPak funds have done very little noticeable good on such crucial tasks as extending the reach of the government into the violent frontier region between the two countries. Meanwhile, programs like the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which go only to relatively well-governed states, are almost certainly more effective. In fact, it’s the money the United States spends in the name of “national security,” and which the GOP is eager to protect, that serves as a stimulus bill for foreign countries: Massive U.S. spending in Afghanistan not only props up the dysfunctional government there but fills the pockets of warlords and political leaders. The MCA, which is slated to lose 29 percent of its funding, really does help needy countries, whether or not they pose a terrorist threat to the United States.

The simple fact that these programs do real good in the world, and that the entire international affairs budget — of which foreign aid is only a part — represents 0.38 percent of national GDP should be reason enough to restore the funding. But it won’t be. If the Obama administration is not going to accept this unholy compromise, it will have to forcefully make, or remake, the case that helping fragile states is a national security imperative.

I would nominate Defense Secretary Robert Gates to lead the charge. Gates has consistently argued for increased State Department funding. In a 2008 speech, he observed that failing states pose a greater danger to U.S. security than do “ambitious” ones, and said that “America’s civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long” relative to the U.S. military. If this is so, then it’s obviously a dreadful mistake to cut 15 percent from the budget of USAID, as the current House plan would do, let alone virtually eliminate the agency as the Republican Study Committee proposed.

The problem is that Gates is much more preoccupied with defending the Pentagon’s gigantic $671 billion budget request. Gates has claimed that anything more than Obama’s proposed $78 billion in cuts — much of them from dubious accounting — will damage national security. This insistence on preserving defense spending — to say nothing of entitlements — has required deeper cuts elsewhere in order to make inroads on the deficit. But if diplomacy and development really are underfunded relative to the military, then it’s perverse to slash the budget for international affairs while protecting the Pentagon; we should take money from the bloated defense budget to increase funding for the MCA, or to help build the action-oriented USAID that both Gates and Clinton have forcefully advocated. And given that we spend more than 20 times as much on defense as we do on development assistance, we could make the changes proportional by cutting $20 from the Pentagon for every $1 we add to development, and use the rest to draw down the deficit. Do we really think that would make us, on balance, less safe?

Gates is stepping down later this year. Here is his chance to leave the nation an enduring legacy.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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