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Death by a Thousand (Small) Cuts

Budget Deal Chips Away at Critical Diplomatic Tools

Budget negotiations to avoid a government shutdown occurred down to the wire late last week, with the inevitable hard choices on all sides. As details of the deal become public, it is worth noting that once again Defense Department spending—which comprises some 20 percent of federal budget—will escape not only free of any cuts but also with a $5 billion increase for the rest of the fiscal year. Meanwhile, the State Department and foreign assistance account—already woefully underfunded—is slashed by $8 billion. So as Republicans begin to applaud the largest nondefense spending cut in our nation’s history, our diplomats are scrambling to figure out which tools they will have left to respond to the tremendous political change underway around the globe.

These kind of lopsided cuts are the wrong approach. We need to refocus our spending priorities so we can adequately address and respond to the threats we face today—not those from yesterday. Today’s global challenges are far more complex and interconnected than yesterday’s, and traditional military might is not the only way—and often not even the best way—to maintain our leadership role in the world.

To give an example, the Obama administration’s continued effort to work collaboratively at the United Nations to address threats from Iran’s nuclear program—through the recent U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution, for example—is a critical tool to ensuring punitive measures and condemnation of Iranian actions that comes from the entire international community, not just the United States. As we continue to restore our credibility around the world, this type of diplomatic collaboration strengthens our foreign policy and national security objectives. It does not weaken them.

Senior officials at the Defense Department—from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Gen. David Petraeus—acknowledge this shift and have become vocal supporters of adequate funding to our civilian agencies, such as the State Department, as a core national security priority. Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they regularly note that cuts to these agencies will have a devastating impact on our national security. And yet the Defense Department still emerged from the recent round of negotiations with $5 billion more in funding than last year.

Chipping away at foreign affairs and assistance funding cripples our ability to dynamically respond to today’s global challenges and it is time for Congress to recognize that reality. For instance, chopping off $122 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s operating expenses and more than $1.4 billion from the State Department’s Economic Support Fund may cost us the ability to help critical countries transition to democracy, including Egypt and Tunisia. Turning our back on such assistance now is particularly problematic given how vulnerable nascent democracies in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as elsewhere, are to upheaval and violence.

We might have been able to look to other member states at the United Nations to shoulder some of the diplomatic burden during this time of fiscal austerity. But that option may also prove difficult with more than $300 million in cuts to our U.N. contributions and deeper cuts likely to emerge down the road. We’ll be hard pressed to maintain our leadership role when our diplomats and development workers are lacking the tools they need to do the job.

The end result is shortchanging our ability to engage on issues of mutual interest with our friends and allies, which in turn harms our national security by hampering our ability to develop long-term strategies and sustainable partnerships.

Other foreign policy battles are on the horizon, too. With voting on the final FY11 budget expected later this week, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has already released his long-term budget plan, dubbed the “Path to Prosperity.” This plan will significantly cut the international affairs and foreign assistance budget, starting in FY 2012, while increasing defense spending by some 14 percent.

Rep. Ryan is ignoring the calls from Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, among others, to demilitarize American foreign policy. He has made it clear that if last week’s negotiations gave an inch, he’s about to try for a mile.

Democracy is about compromise. But it’s also about maintaining balance amidst evolving priorities. Government officials patting themselves on the back for reaching a compromise budget that does nothing to address the bloat in military spending would do well to remember that.

Sarah Margon is the Associate Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.