The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A national security budget for a country in retreat

State Department employees listen to an address by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

One would think that with all the slashing of domestic programs and hacking away at entitlements, President Trump — who enjoyed approval for missile strikes in Syria and for dropping the “MOAB” on Afghanistan, who ran on a defense buildup and who reportedly is considering substantial expansion of our forces in Afghanistan — would at least propose a robust national security budget. But no, Trump’s national security budget more closely resembles President Barack Obama’s than President Ronald Reagan’s (which fulfilled his pledge to rebuild American forces). Instead of keeping his pledge to the armed services, Trump decided to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the very wealthy.

Reuters reports:

While U.S. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for national defense increases spending, it falls short of campaign promises to rebuild the Navy and a “historic” increase in military spending.
The budget proposes a modest increase in military spending. Trump is seeking a $52 billion hike for the Pentagon as part of an overall defense spending increase of $54 billion. That is almost 10 percent higher than current budget caps, but only 3 percent more than what former President Barack Obama had sought in his long-term budget plan.
The $603 billion includes funding for nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy and other national defense programs as well as the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon’s specific defense request is for $574.5 billion, an increase of 4.6 percent compared with the budget for fiscal year 2017.
“Looking at defense specifically, this is not a historic budget — much less a buildup,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank based in Washington.

At a time we are demanding that NATO do more, trying to signal to Arab allies that we are a reliable partner and seeking to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East, the budget communicates a decided lack of seriousness and commitment. The gap between the numbers on the page and our desired policy objective is growing, not shrinking. (“The fiscal 2018 budget proposal’s [overseas contingency operations] funding includes $46 billion for operations in Afghanistan, but is based on current U.S. troops levels at about 8,400. The Trump administration is weighing sending between 3,000 and 5,000 additional U.S. and coalition troops to the war-torn country to stem gains made by Taliban militants.”) Had Obama sent up this budget, conservatives would have deplored him for neglecting the men and women who are risking their lives to keep us safe.

“It seems clear that despite the President’s call in his Philadelphia speech in September for a repeal of the Budget Control Act [which created the sequester] and a big buildup of the military he has not budgeted the resources to accomplish this,” says former ambassador Eric Edelman, a member of the National Defense Panel that recommended in 2014 a substantial buildup. “With these numbers he won’t be able to get a 350-ship Navy, a larger Army, or most of the other things that he promised the American people. There seems to be a disconnect between the rhetoric of ‘peace through strength’ and doing what is necessary from a budgetary perspective to build that strength.” He added, “Those of us who have been concerned about the declining state of the nation’s defenses will have to rely on the Congress to make sure that the gap between America’s commitments and its capabilities doesn’t grow greater on this President’s watch.”

Moreover, there is a national security cost paid when our instruments of soft power are eviscerated. The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition finds:

As foreshadowed in the “skinny” budget, the International Affairs Budget takes the largest and most disproportionate cuts in the Non-Defense Discretionary budget in the Administration’s proposal. With a $54 billion cut to Non-Defense Discretionary spending compared to FY17, the budget proposes to cut all discretionary agencies except Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security; however, the International Affairs Budget receives a devastating 32% cut, taking funding back to levels not seen since 9/11 (inflation adjusted). Additionally, as a percentage of GDP, funding for the International Affairs Budget would drop to its lowest level since World War IIe

Considering that he is slashing funds and refusing to fill key jobs, perhaps Trump should be asked who is going to do the hard work of negotiating deals, resolving disputes, policing human rights (oops — we no longer care about that, I suppose), resolving grievances, knitting together alliances and the rest. ““This budget might as well have been written in Moscow or Beijing. They are the true beneficiaries, since if enacted this budget would lead to an American pullback from much of the world, creating huge gaps for our adversaries to step in,” says Max Bergmann, who worked in the Obama State Department. “There is just no strategic rationale for such a retreat from the world. No self-respecting Secretary of State could ever support such extreme cuts in his Department when we are experiencing the longest period of private sector job growth in history. State has operated on an austerity budget under sequestration since 2011. This budget isn’t cutting fat, it’s cutting bone.”

Trump also consolidates and slashes foreign aid programs. (“The Administration’s FY18 request proposes to cut overall funding for humanitarian assistance by $4.2 billion (44%).”) The list goes on: cutting global health funding by 26 percent, closing USAID offices in nine countries, etc. None other than Bill and Melinda Gates, who run the world’s most prominent foundation, blasted the budget. In a terse statement, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive declared: “The President’s budget takes square aim at progress by potentially reversing remarkable achievements in health and poverty reduction. Severe spending cuts in education and foreign aid threaten the prosperity and security of Americans and people around the world by reducing economic opportunity and making the world less stable. It is vital that we remain committed to reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.”

Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also slammed the president in a statement. “If a budget is a reflection of values, then what the Trump Administration values is an American retreat from the world that will make the United States less safe and secure. The numbers speak for themselves in the narrow-minded budget released today,” he argued. “What is most perplexing about the Administration’s combined 31.7 percent gutting of international affairs spending is that, from Defense Secretary and former General James Mattis on down, senior military officials consistently speak about how important the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are to their work. This slashing of our foreign operations and assistance makes the world more dangerous for America and Americans, and is a slap in the face to all the American personnel who work every day to keep this country safe and build a better world.”

Indeed, the budget reflects just how little clout and understanding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson possesses. For all his rah-rah talks to department employees, it is obvious that neither he nor the president values these employees’ work. “What is striking is that, so far as we know, Tillerson meekly acquiesced in the gutting of the foreign affairs budget — and, let it be said, the denigration of what it represents,” remarks frequent Trump critic Eliot A. Cohen. “A sorry beginning to his tenure as Secretary of State.”

In sum, the budget reflects scant understanding of the burdens that we are placing on the military. In addition, we see no indication that the administration understands what soft power is, or how essential it is to establishing an “America First” foreign policy. Ironically, the budget comes out on a day when Trump is in the middle of a long international trip. Someone should tell our allies to disregard his sales pitch — he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is.