Gen. David Petraeus appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Columnist

President Trump often touts his efforts to increase military funding, but the nation’s leading senior active and retired military officers are increasingly arguing for the United States to spend more on preventing wars rather than fighting them — the opposite of the White House’s proposed approach.

The Senate passed a massive spending bill Tuesday that includes a full year of budget increases for the Pentagon but only temporary funding, continuing at current levels, for the State Department and USAID. The White House has proposed slashing funding for diplomacy and development by about 30 percent for two years in a row. For the moment, Congress has again forestalled such drastic cuts, but the fight is far from over.

That’s why about a dozen retired three- and four-star generals and admirals toured Capitol Hill last week, looking ahead to the next budget fight — with a new Congress — after the November elections. They represent a group of more than 200 retired senior military officers who are working to lobby Congress and the Trump administration to support money for diplomacy and development to avoid the need to send in the troops.

Funding for diplomacy and development is an easy target, and there’s no strong domestic constituency to advocate for it, so military officers who have seen the costs when diplomacy fails must step up and make the case, former Central Command chief David Petraeus told me.

“Each of the last three presidents has wanted to do nation-building at home rather than overseas. This is a familiar and understandable desire, but then it collides with reality,” he said. “The reality is we are still engaged and need to stay engaged in a number of countries around the world where the appropriate strategy is not just military action.”

Petraeus is among the hundreds of retired military officers who have joined up with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which convenes supporters of development and diplomacy funding for events all around the country. The case for spending money on aid to avoid military intervention must be made to ordinary voters as well, members of the group told me.

But the focus on Congress right now is crucial because congressional foreign policy leadership is about to turn over in a way not seen in decades. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) passed away. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) are retiring. The November election could result in Democrats taking over several national security-related committees.

Congressmen are even more sensitive about the funding around elections, when using U.S. taxpayer money for things such as economic aid, food aid, civil society support and humanitarian support in war zones comes under greater scrutiny. The generals’ and admirals’ argument is that supporting these programs reduces extremism and builds stability that will save the United States money in the long run.

“There’s a difficulty for members to explain to their constituency why this is important,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald. “I tell them you can either spend that up front now or 10 times that amount later.”

Or as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former member of USGLC’s National Security Advisory Council, famously said, if the State Department’s funding gets cut, “then I need to buy more ammunition.” Other active-duty military leaders have also publicly made the case for strong diplomacy and development budgets, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Vice Chairman Gen. Paul J. Selva, who said in June: “Our global leadership is important for many reasons, and not the least of which is that diplomacy and development are a hell of a lot cheaper than defense.”

The first time the Trump administration proposed slashing the State Department and USAID budgets, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, called it a “doctrine of retreat.” When the new Congress gets seated next year, they must heed the calls of our military leaders and reject Trump’s penny-wise, pound-foolish approach.