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Congress and the budget quandary

Congress and the budget quandary

In recent weeks, civil unrest in much of the Middle East has reminded many Americans of the very uncertain world in which we live. Repressive regimes that appear stable one day can just as quickly be overthrown the next, altering the strategic landscape and impacting U.S. interests.

This is an important lesson for the members of the 112th Congress as they debate ways to reduce the United States’ spiraling deficit. As the search for savings has begun, some members have gone after areas of the federal budget that have nothing to do with our fiscal woes to pay down the debt.

In recent months, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates faced pressure from the White House to find more savings in the defense budget despite being the one cabinet secretary who has already carried out multiple rounds of cost cutting. Republicans in Congress weren’t much kinder. The House approved an FY11 continuing resolution late last week providing $15.9 billion less for the core defense budget than President Obama requested. The House’s FY11 continuing resolution would also cut the FY11 international affairs budget by nearly 20 percent from FY10 levels. The debate shifts to the Senate when Congress returns from recess next week.

This pressure to cut international affairs and defense is coming not just from Congress, but also from several blue-ribbon commissions that recently produced deficit reduction recommendations.

As Secretary Gates observed after deficit commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson proposed $100 billion of cuts to the defense budget, these recommendations represent "math not strategy." Several task forces have combined a dire assessment of the impact of the financial crisis with questionable proposals about bringing troops home from overseas, closing embassies and consulates, and canceling weapons programs. The long-term implications of these proposals represent nothing less than a rethinking of the U.S. role in the world even though the commissions were ill-equipped to analyze the implications of their proposed cuts.

Defense and international affairs have ended up on the chopping block despite the fact that the 2010 midterms were not a referendum on U.S. foreign policy. In fact, even in the midst of two wars and continuing terrorist threats to the homeland, congressional campaigns were marked by very little discussion of national security. In a late October 2010 poll done by the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of respondents said that the war in Afghanistan was the first or second issue most important to their vote, and only 9 percent cited terrorism.

As recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have shown, the United States will continue to face strategic challenges in the coming decades that will require significant diplomatic and military expenditures. For most Americans, the need to adequately fund the military, the country’s most-respected institution, is clear. For conservatives looking to downsize government, the case for a robust international affairs budget may be less apparent.

In the post-9/11 era, funding via the U.S. State Department and affiliated agencies increasingly goes toward civilian missions in war zones. These programs are essential to our long-term success in front-line states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. These targeted funds go toward U.S. efforts to support democracy and human rights abroad and help train and equip allied militaries around the world. Such security assistance is pivotal amid the increased threats of rogue states and terrorist organizations and allows an already overstretched U.S. military to focus on more immediate threats.

U.S. aid programs provide the United States with tools to counter emerging threats from weak and failing states. Often thought of solely as evidence of American goodwill and values, these programs are in fact key components in the battle against extremism, battling the conditions that often fuel anti-U.S. sentiment.

As President George W. Bush recently wrote in his memoirs, "After the attacks [of 9/11], it became clear to me that this was more than a mission of conscience. Our national security was tied directly to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists."

It is also important to remember that America only spends roughly 1.4 percent of the federal budget on international affairs. In polls, Americans routinely overestimate the amount spent on such programs, perhaps contributing to the temptation of lawmakers to look to such programs first when drawing up constrained budgets.

Like any part of the government, there are certainly wasteful programs and inefficiencies that should be targeted and eliminated, but the deficit is not going to be paid off by savings generated from gutting the international affairs budget.

Although the amount spent on defense is significantly larger, it too is not the source of our current fiscal predicament. Oddly, given the now frequent proposals in Washington to cut international affairs and defense, it is not apparent that the American public supports this agenda.

It was, in fact, outrage over the Obama administration’s runaway domestic and entitlement spending that drove many voters to the polls last November. It is thus these areas of the federal budget that lawmakers should focus their attention on first. Targeting our military and diplomatic capabilities will only serve to put the country at greater risk.

The 112th Congress faces some tough choices about how to improve America’s fiscal situation without sacrificing our standing in the world. Unfortunately, thus far, many have skirted over the strategic debate and jumped directly to the budget cutting. The United States’ current economic woes are concerning, but abdicating the global responsibilities of the United States is not the solution.