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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Gutting the State Department

What the proposed budget cuts say about the growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Photo: Flickr/NCinDC

In the midst of an historic impasse over the 2012 funding of the federal government, Republicans and Democrats agreed to cut billions of dollars from the nation’s foreign policy budget. However, reading the list of what got cut (pdf) one agency is conspicuously missing: the Department of Defense. Most of the cuts to American foreign policy — nearly $8 billion — came from the State Department. What gives?

A bipartisan problem

When it comes time to cut budgets, the State Department is all too often at the front of the line. As Josh Rogin has documented, the Republicans have plans for deeper cuts in the State Department — upwards of 29 percent of its operating budget — as well as other GOP proposals to completely de-fund USAID and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Democrats, too, have cut the State Department budget. In a statement, House State and Foreign Operations ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY) defended the cuts, saying that the original Republican proposal “would effectively chop” the civilian foreign affairs budget. It’s possible that merely reducing the cuts to civilian foreign policy programs from catastrophic to damaging can be counted a victory. But just one year ago, Democrats in the Senate were bickering over the plan by Foreign Relations Committee chief Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA) to cut $4 billion from President Obama’s 2011 international affairs budget. While Democrats cut less from the civilian side of the equation, they still cut from it.

What’s so remarkable about this battle is the embattled budget was the first State Department authorization bill since 2005. When Congress cannot pass a new authorization bill for an agency, its budget is essentially frozen, continuing at the last approved funding level. It would be daft to assume the world — and with it, the need for diplomacy and outreach — hadn’t changed from 2005 to 2011.

The squabbling over the State Department’s budget has largely crippled its ability to adapt to the rapidly changing world around it. The cuts for 2012 include reduced security protection for diplomats, contributions to the U.N. and the Africa Development Fund, and gutting the Economic Support Fund. The ESF is responsible for USAID’s foreign aid programs — which, despite representing a fraction of a percent of the overall U.S. budget, consume an enormous amount of angst on the Hill — and for supporting the Middle East peace process, as well as other crisis environments like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and (soon, most likely) Libya.

Questions of effectiveness

Some readers here may we aware that I’m not the biggest fan of USAID: I think we need to implement substantial reforms to the foreign-aid industrial complex. But you cannot reform an agency if you eviscerate its budget. If some of the middle-management and long-serving career officers are a problem at the State Department, as some ex-employees have attested in private, then cutting the budget doesn’t actually fix the problem. If, as Republicans allege, the State Department is ineffective, then cutting its budget doesn’t actually make the agency any more effective (and since government agencies are not a competitive market, it’s not like some better-designed organization will spring up filled with diplomatic entrepreneurs).

It’s no secret that many programs at the State Department are broken or severely handicapped. But it would be madness to think that cutting its budget right when a growing number of crises require strong diplomacy and smart civilian management.

It also seems to be a temptation of some on the Hill — again, in both parties — to transfer or tacitly allow the transfer of some responsibilities from the State Department to the Department of Defense. As the big kid on the block, the DoD has the extra people, the budget surpluses and the can-do attitude of the military to fund its many non-military activities. That is why the military, and not USAID, is the biggest spender of reconstruction money (the Congressional Research Service in 2010 calculated [pdf] that the DoD accounts for 94 percent of all expenditure in the wars since Sept. 11). At the same time, the government body literally begs the Congress to keep funding the State Department, even as the cuts to State keep coming.

Meanwhile, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to reduce its growth by $78 billion over the next five years and $400 billion over the next 12 years. The first request isn’t even a cut, but a reduction in its budget growth. The second, in the long run, isn’t as significant as its eye-popping dollar amount implies. Since 2001, the DoD budget has about doubled, to about $670 billion. Cutting $400 billion of growth over 12 years is not a huge change, just a reduction in how quickly it could grow, along with some actual budget cuts. Even so, when such a thing is proposed, the response ranges from accusing cut proponents of hating troops to implying that the cuts will lead to global nuclear proliferation.

No built-in constituency

No one thinks cutting the State Department will spur nuclear proliferation, regional arms races or any other apocalyptic tragedy. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to cut the State Department’s budget. So why can’t the State Department get any love?

A lot of critics point to a 2007 Town Hall meeting, in which a few Foreign Service Officers — diplomats — complained of being  stationed in Iraq. The event was hugely embarrassing for the department, but the derision levied at the entire agency seemed misplaced. After all, U.S. soldiers have committed crimes, they’ve whined in public and one even went to jail for refusing to deploy over his rejection of President Obama’s birth certificate. Yet, there is no widespread disgust at the military, or of the troops who serve.

Next time you’re at Target, take a look at the bumper stickers on the SUVs in the parking lot. In all likelihood, you’ll find a good half-dozen or more that say “Support the Troops” in one way or another. You will not find “Support the Diplomats” anywhere. As Dana Priest documented in her 2004 book “The Mission,” the military combatant commands (regionally-focused commands like CENTCOM) each have dozens of staff members devoted to lobbying Congress for defense needs (this is in addition to Department-level attaches on the Hill, and the many DoD officials assigned to do public relations). The State Department simply cannot field as many people to lobby Congress or the public to advance its cause. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The DoD, in contrast, has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more employees in the U.S.

So with no built-in constituency to argue for its interest, and an acutely lopsided share of the foreign policy budget (under 6 percent), it seems natural the State Department would face cuts first. It never really stood a chance. That doesn’t make it right, however. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been warning for years of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy — and he’s not alone. Even so, the relentless attacks on the civilian side of the foreign policy budget continue without much public outcry, while cuts to the growth rate of the Defense budget are met with howling and apocalyptic foreshadowing.

The $8.5 billion of cuts in the 2012 budget would be a rounding error in the DoD’s $671 billion budget. But in the State Department’s $47 billion budget, it is devastating. Until this dramatic imbalance in spending priorities is reversed — until both parties in Congress agree that our foreign policy should not be dominated by the military — this trend of gutting civilian programs will only get worse.