Will Obama’s New Budget Keep America Safe?

February 17th, 2011

In a public opinion poll conducted in November of 2010, Americans, on average, estimated 25% of the Federal budget goes to foreign aid.  When asked what would be an appropriate amount to go to foreign aid, Americans answered 10% of the budget.  The amount of the U.S. federal budget that actually goes to foreign aid? About 1%.  It’s no surprise that foreign aid is one of the only budget areas that a majority of Americans are willing to cut.

The reason for this, pollsters believe, is because Americans have blurred the line between defense spending, which primarily goes to the Department of Defense (DoD), and has funded the expensive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and foreign aid, which primarily goes to the Department of State and USAID and includes, for example, money for disaster relief efforts in Haiti. The pollsters hypothesized that when people think of aid, they think of that “whole footprint.”

David Kilcullen, an Australian author on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, explains in his book “The Accidental Gorilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One,” that there is an asymmetry in “the mismatch between military and non-military elements of U.S. national power.”  In fact, Kilcullen notes, “the Department of Defense is about 210 (times) larger than USAID and State combined, in personnel terms” And in budgetary terms, DoD is 310 times the size of its diplomatic counterparts.

On Monday President Obama released his budget request for fiscal year 2012.  In line with the majority of American’s thinking, it includes broad cuts in many State and USAID programs.  The largest cuts would come from funding for international organizations and peacekeeping, a program to support countries moving toward democracy, and the International Law Enforcement and Narcotics Bureau.

But these cuts weren’t enough for the Republican-led house. In their omnibus spending bill for unfinished 2011 spending outlays, Republicans proposed cutting $3.8 billion from foreign aid and the State Department, 21% below Obama’s request, including a 17% cut to the Peace Corps.  Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has proposed eliminating the foreign aid budget entirely and the Republican Study Committee filed its own bill which would “terminate U.S. economic aid to Egypt and wipe out the Agency for International Development.”

The truth is that the amount we spend on foreign aid is small, but absolutely critical to national security. I’m not talking about the kind of security that you buy with bigger tanks and better weapons, but rather the kind of security that exists in strong alliances and networks of support across the globe.  Economic development promotes stability, which in turn prevents failing states from becoming a training ground for terrorism and extremism—think Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  Aid promotes good will toward America and supports democratic governance.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called these proposed cuts “devastating.”  Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ) has noted “U.S. spending on foreign aid and diplomacy under President Ronald Reagan was never less than 1.1 percent of the federal budget. Today, in our more interconnected, just as complex, and equally hostile world, our country would be less secure if we removed our diplomatic presence from the globe.”

This isn’t a question of Democrat versus Republican.  In fact, about one year after September 11th, 2001, it was Republican President George Bush who, for the first time, made global development one of the three pillars of the U.S. National Security Strategy, along with defense and diplomacy.

Nor is this a question of State versus Defense. In fact, members of the military agree with the logic that diplomacy and aid are necessary compliments to defense spending. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has now served under both a Democrat and a Republican President, said last September, “Without development we will not be successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” And a 2010 poll commissioned by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition found that “nearly 90 percent of active duty and retired military officers agree the tools of diplomacy and development are critical to achieving U.S. national security objectives and a strong military alone is not enough to protect America.”

Americans have rightly blurred the line between defense spending and foreign aid.  Both areas are critical to national security.  Unfortunately, in terms of the budget, the line could not be brighter.  Yet in this budget, we see cuts across the board for diplomacy just as we see budgetary increases for the military.  This is not the way to make the world a better place, but more importantly for American lawmakers, it is not the way to keep Americans safe.  And that, after all, should be the government’s number one priority.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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