President Trump plans to propose a budget that will strengthen national security without taking on additional debt. As part of the package, he is looking to cut spending at the State Department and other federal agencies to offset the cost of rebuilding our depleted military.
That's the responsible way to proceed.
Naturally, cuts anywhere in federal spending are bound to gore someone's ox, and the State Department is loaded with a whole herd of what some consider sacred cows. And foreign aid is one of them.
Critics argue that a dollar spent on "soft power" — diplomacy in all its variations — prevents more expensive problems later on. If you accept that assumption, cutting soft power (State) to help rebuild hard power (the Pentagon) makes no sense. But the assumption is flawed in several ways.
For one thing, it assumes that Defense and State are equally flush with cash. But during the Obama era, the two departments had very different budgetary experiences. The Department of State's budget grew significantly. Today, it's about 30 percent bigger than when Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office. But defense spending is down — about 24 percent since 2011.
But the world is certainly no safer. Global Islamist terrorism, for example, is far more pervasive than when the Obama took office. The Great Russian Reset has utterly failed: we've seen Russia take Crimea, foment war in Ukraine, prop up the failing Assad regime in Syria and threaten our Baltic allies. North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs continue to advance. Iran will one day follow suit. Meanwhile, China has aggressively expanded its territorial claims in the South China Sea and embarked on a major military build-up.
All of those extra dollars spent on soft power appear to have purchased very little in terms of national security or global stability.
How the money was spent is part of the problem. Much of the increased spending at State went to fund pet items on the president's agenda. For instance, last year, Obama requested about $3.45 billion for Gender, Climate Change, and Biodiversity programs. Further, the administration added literally dozens of global envoys, each with his or her own staff and budget.
Ginning up these programs and creating lots of cushy jobs for their progressive-minded pals doubtless made Obama and his State Department feel good about themselves. (And, face it, who wouldn't like jetting around the world to stay at posh hotels and talk with like-minded people about their favorite causes?)
But these initiatives mostly failed to address core issues of statecraft. As a result, they didn't make for a better world. They certainly didn't improve America's place in the world. They should be the first — not the last — budget meat put on the chopping block.
That is not to argue that foreign aid is bad. It will, for instance, be crucial to helping the U.S. stabilize the unsteady Middle East and spare pouring more American troops into the mess. From Israel to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Tunisia, there are plenty of good steps the U.S. can take with its money. But programs that don't impact core issues of statecraft and can't deliver tangible results ought to be cut.
Cuts can also force many desirable organizational efficiencies, as well. For instance, it's high time to end the notion that USAID is an independent agency. By fully integrating USAID into the State Department — and co-locating USAID and State Department officers in the same regional bureaus — the Trump proposal will save American taxpayers millions of dollars in duplicative administrative costs.
Regardless of how reductions at State might be implemented, over one or several years, a 30 percent drop would take the department back to the pre-Obama days. That's a good thing. It would allow State to jettison all of Obama's baggage, and focus on the core responsibilities — and very hard work-of exercising soft power.
James Jay Carafano (@JJCarafano) is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, where he directs the think tank's research in issues pertaining to national security and foreign relations.
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