- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash the U.S. foreign aid budget by 37 percent threatens to undermine U.S. national security. While touting his budget as critical “to keep Americans safe,” the president’s strategy is shortsighted and fails to recognize the critical role international development assistance plays in addressing complex global security challenges. Indeed, the proposed budget sells short the president’s stated top national security priority, “to demolish and destroy” the Islamic State. Hard-won victories against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will be short-lived in the absence of well-funded civilian assistance, which is an indispensable tool in the long-term battle against extremism.
While the soft power aspect of U.S. development assistance is important, increasingly the work performed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others must be recognized as a strategic asset that is no less powerful than the military in confronting multifaceted challenges, and for a fraction of the cost — less than one percent of the total federal budget. Indeed, in a letter to Congress last month, more than 120 retired military leaders underscored their “strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development are critical to keeping America safe.” Recognizing the complexity of crises in the 21st century world, they noted that these problems “do not have military solutions alone.” Nowhere is this more apparent than the Arab world, which suffers from the Islamic State’s barbaric extremism; wrenching conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; and massive refugee flows to Lebanon, Jordan, and beyond. Youth unemployment, poverty, corruption, and unaccountable governance add to the region’s volatility.
The U.S. military has spearheaded the counter-Islamic State campaign, but it is USAID, together with the U.N. and other international partners, that plays a key role in stabilizing areas liberated from the Islamic State. In his March 9 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, underscored that military might alone is not sufficient to defeat the Islamic State:
The military can help to create the necessary conditions; however, there must be concomitant progress in other complementary areas (e.g., reconstruction, humanitarian aid, stabilization, political reconciliation). There are a variety of interagency programs and efforts underway that are essential to translating military gains into actual achievement of stated goals and objectives. Support for these endeavors is vital to our success.
This is where USAID and its partners come in. Beyond providing critically needed humanitarian assistance and insuring access to essential services such as water, electricity, and health care, U.S. assistance helps strengthen local governance and ideally will facilitate the sustainable return of those who have been displaced from their homes. Successful stabilization of these areas will help prevent the emergence of dangerous power vacuums that can lead to renewed conflict, vastly diminishing the prospects that the United States will need to return to battle the Islamic State 2.0.
In Syria, USAID and its partners are pioneering new ways to help build resilience in areas where conflict has diminished, allowing Syrians to stay rather than be forced to seek refuge elsewhere. These programs seek to revitalize agricultural markets, improve food security, and provide Syrians with a means to earn a living, enabling them to stay in Syria rather than flee and add to the refugee flow.
Jordan and Lebanon, which already has the most refugees per capita of any country in the world, host significant numbers of Syrian refugees. U.S. development dollars support these host communities, whose public services and schools have been strained by the refugee influx. USAID and other development agencies are constantly innovating and developing solutions to help ensure that Syrian refugee children have access to education. Not only is this the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do. Ensuring that a generation of Syrian children is not lost to hopelessness and despair by providing them access to education will protect against the emergence of a new generation of extremists and a new source of threats to U.S. national security.
The protection and promotion of U.S. national security interests has traditionally rested on the three-legged stool of defense, diplomacy, and development. In this era of complicated security challenges, development, alongside diplomacy, must retain equal footing with defense. Cutting any of these legs will severely compromise U.S. national security. As the purported master of the deal, Trump should recognize the significant value versus dollar spent on development assistance. Deep reductions in the development budget will do little to reduce the overall budget, while greatly imperiling the United States.
Photo credit: PAULA BRONSTEIN/Getty Images