Pound-foolish on national security

By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 1, 2010

A month ago, with much fanfare and relief, President Obama announced that American involvement in Iraq was entering a post-military phase. "Our dedicated civilians -- diplomats, aid workers and advisers -- are moving into the lead to support Iraq," the president said. The State Department would begin taking over training and capacity-building roles previously performed by the Defense Department, in preparation for the departure of all American troops by the end of next year. This phase of the Iraq war was dubbed "New Dawn."

Congress has responded to this strategy by cutting funds for civilian efforts in Iraq in ways that may undermine hard-won achievements and endanger American lives. Resources were reduced in the 2010 supplemental spending bill and slashed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 2011 budget. This week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- in a rare instance of one Cabinet secretary fighting for another department's funding -- responded: "The Congress took a huge whack at the budget the State Department submitted for this process of transition. And it is one of these cases where, having invested an enormous amount of money [in the war], we are now arguing about a tiny amount of money, in terms of bringing this to a successful conclusion."

These actions have gained some attention for the possible risks they pose to diplomats, trainers and development experts operating in a dangerous place without a military shield. The State Department is seeking helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles. It will need to hire thousands of security contractors with skills they don't cover on the Foreign Service exam: recovering downed aircraft, bomb disposal, retrieving dead and wounded personnel.

But the problem is larger than Iraq. These cuts reveal a pound-foolish approach to the budget that could damage American security in the coming era of austerity.

There is broad conceptual agreement that the civilian tools of security -- development, diplomacy, technical assistance to strengthen weak governments -- have never been more important. The concept was a tenet of the last president's national security strategy. It is a commitment of Obama's new global development policy. It is a centerpiece of the military's counterinsurgency doctrine.

And yet: Nearly every year the congressional budget and appropriations committees cut the international affairs portion of the budget from the president's request by a higher percentage than any other appropriation. It is a tempting, easy political target.

Some conservatives have an instinctive distrust for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. They prefer to give funding to the Defense Department, whose contributions to American security seem more tangible -- as tangible as a tank. Some liberals are suspicious of using development to achieve national security goals, as though the use of public money was sullied by serving the public interest. So they like nation-building in a place like Bosnia, but not in Iraq.

The tightness of the next few budgets will only strengthen these ideological objections. But cuts in development and diplomacy funding are essentially irrelevant to the fiscal debate, since the category of international affairs represents about 1.4 percent of the federal budget. Without entitlement reform, such cuts are meaningless. With entitlement reform, such cuts are unnecessary. Reducing foreign aid is purely symbolic -- but still damaging.

It deadens a part of our national conscience. America's relative prosperity and its founding commitment to universal human dignity turn opportunities into obligations. The rights of women in Afghanistan have value to us. The entirely preventable deaths of African children from malaria offend us and move us to action. Remove these moral instincts from American foreign policy and we may remain a great power -- but we will cease to be recognizably American.

There is, however, a less idealistic argument. The worst challenges of our world -- terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, criminal gangs, refugee flows, pandemics -- generally emerge from weak states, ungoverned regions and hopeless parts of the planet. By encouraging hope and progress, health and good government, we add to the security of America. This is obvious in Iraq, where a failed state would infinitely complicate American interests. It is equally true in Pakistan, Nigeria and other strategic places.

This widely held bipartisan conviction is about to tested in a very practical way. The Republicans, if they win control of Congress in November, have pledged to reduce federal discretionary spending to 2008 levels, with an exception made for national security programs. Will development spending be granted national security immunity? It should be. If it isn't, both our ideals and our interests will suffer.


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