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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Budget cuts by hatchet or scalpel?

Refugees in Kenya receiving food from USAID on July 12, 2011. Photo: USAID Africa Bureau

By now, it’s accepted that civilian foreign policy agencies of the federal government will face cuts in the budget wrangling still going on in Congress. Indeed, when congressional budget cutters look at the foreign policy budget, the State Department and its component agencies, like the United States Agency for International Development, are first in line.

Nevertheless, the budget for international affairs — that is, the programs not administered by the military that are focused on development, humanitarian assistance, and other forms of aid (the so-called Budget Function 150 programs) — are always under the axe in a way the Defense Department is not. Cuts that seem relatively minor for the Defense Department ($4 billion or $5 billion) represent large percentages of the money available for such programs.

This weekend’s “debt deal” in Congress, which raised the debt ceiling and agreed to some cuts in the future, contains a change in how the international affairs budget is calculated within the federal budget. In Section 102 of the bill, Function 150 budgets are reclassified as “security.” This means foreign assistance and development programs — USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and lots of State Department programs — are now in the same budget category as the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and the National Nuclear Safety Administration.

It might seem like a minor thing, but this actually provides a sneaky way for the Congress to cut money from “national security” without actually touching sacred DOD programs. By cutting assistance agencies like USAID — a GOP goal for the last 18 months — Congress can cut from development assistance programs and say it is reducing national security spending. This change in language is damaging in that it furthers the militarization of civilian aid programs.

Respected defense analysts like Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams have argued forcefully that USAID is a part of the national security budget. And they are right to a degree: The argument that the U.S. has a compelling national security interest in developing poor countries, in responding to disasters and in alleviating famine is a perfectly reasonable one. Afghanistan and Pakistan are two of the biggest recipients of USAID money because the Obama administration believes USAID’s programs serve a vital function in America’s relationship to both countries.

But just because USAID can serve a national security function, it doesn’t automatically mean the international affairs budget should be militarized, or even considered part of the security budget. USAID, but also the MCC and other Function 150 programs (consisting of 12 departments, 25 agencies and nearly 60 government offices) perform lots of functions that have no direct bearing on national security. There is intrinsic value in effective programs like the Millennium Challenge Account Philippines that advance American national interests but do not play a security function. But, now they are all fall under a rubric of “security.”

"State vs. Defense" by Stephen Glain.

The rush to militarize diplomatic, economic and assistance programs is a decades-long process documented in journalist Stephen Glain’s new book “State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire.” Glain traces the history of the military’s cooptation of the State Department, both as the DOD assumes control of some state programs like global diplomacy (a process also captured in Dana Priest’s excellent 2004 book “The Mission”) but also through pushing for a more militarist diplomacy at the State Department itself. This relentless militarism, Glain writes, is not only a bad idea globally — presenting ourselves to the world as a military power by stationing hundreds of thousands of troops abroad — but is also economically ruinous.

The challenge with the current debate in Washington about the defense and security budget is that it is lacking strategic context. There is no discussion about what America should do in the world, only what we should cut. That’s why, despite the outsized value development programs can bring when they’re run properly, the first agency on the chopping block is USAID. It is also why cutting the Defense Department is only spoken of in terms of dollar amounts and percentages, rather than a sober analysis of strategies, priorities and means.

There is broad consensus that the national security budget must be cut. This can take the form of across-the-board reductions in spending, or more surgical cuts that focus on making government programs smarter and more efficient. New foreign development paradigms like expeditionary economics offer the promise of spending less money while accomplishing larger, structural reform to damaged economies, thus doing away with massive and ineffective cash injections. Not intervening in messy civil wars — Libya, anyone? — can also save boatloads of money in the long run without requiring painful cuts to cherished programs.

At the same time, we need to be up front that budget cuts will involve job cuts. Winding down the war in Afghanistan, plus larger budget cuts will result in short-term job losses as government jobs and contracts dry up. But, this does not have to be a bad thing per se, especially if this marks a larger shift in the way the U.S. approaches the world. Such a shift could potentially open the doors to unimagined employment and business opportunities. But it will require us to break out of the tired knife fights over budgetary rice bowls.

The Department of Defense employs millions of people. Cutting this agency’s (or any department’s) budget without a consideration of national strategic interests posts enormous risks. (Think about it: Without a strategic plan for the future, we might cut a program we actually need but retain a program that we do not.) As we contemplate cutting thousands of government jobs to cut costs, we should be asking what’s being cut and why, and then assess if the pared-down organizations will be capable of carrying out all of tasks at hand.