Trump’s budget proposal slashes diplomacy and foreign aid, boosts military spending

The administration requested a 29% reduction — about $17 billion — in US diplomatic and foreign aid spending.
Sunday 25/02/2018
US Secretary  of State  Rex Tillerson at the State Department, in Washington, last October. (Reuters)
Wincing. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department, in Washington, last October. (Reuters)

The Trump administration presented its fiscal year 2019 budget request to Congress and, just as it did last year, the administration proposed massive cuts for diplomacy and foreign aid and a substantial increase in funding for the Pentagon.

Only the US Congress can appropriate funds but presidents traditionally submit budget requests early in the calendar year. The US fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30. While usually changed substantially by Congress, the submitted budget reflects the Trump administration’s priorities and values.

It requested a 29% reduction — about $17 billion — in US diplomatic and foreign aid spending. No other federal government agency faces such a large reduction. In the narrative that accompanied the budget request, the administration argued that cutting foreign assistance would promote “self-reliance” among developing countries and help to break their dependence on aid.

It also said it would review US contributions to multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and associated agencies to determine whether the financial outlay “advances American interests.”

The budget request maintains aid to Israel under the terms of a 10-year bilateral agreement reached during the final days of the Obama administration and that guarantees Israel at least $3.9 billion per year in military aid. Also included in the budget request was funding for the construction of a new US Embassy in Jerusalem, which was described as “among the [State] department’s highest priority for capital security investments in FY (Fiscal Year) 2018 and FY 2019.”

Despite facing draconian financial cuts to his department, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the administration’s budget request. Tillerson said that the diminished sums allocated to diplomacy and foreign aid still would provide “the resources necessary to advance peace and security and respond to global crises.”

The proposed reduction in funds for diplomacy and Tillerson’s apparent approval of them likely will lead to further haemorrhaging of career foreign service officers and regional experts from the State Department. Many senior diplomatic positions remain unfilled under the Trump administration. A senior State Department official told The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity that staff morale “is at an all-time low.”

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) said that its priority for spending the reduced funds allocated would be making the United States more competitive economically, improving border security and “facing down” terrorist threats. None of these goals would actually help developing countries and do not reflect the normal definition of foreign aid.

Congress, however, has the final say and legislators from both parties blasted the administration’s request almost as soon as it hit their desks. US Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress already has acted once to stop deep cuts to the State Department and USAID that would have undermined our national security. This year we will act again.”

Royce was referring to Trump’s FY2018 budget request and the fact that Congress reinstated many of his proposed cuts to the foreign aid programme.

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the administration’s proposed budget for diplomacy and foreign aid “would make us less safe.” Engel said the administration’s request was “dead on arrival.”

Dozens of international aid organisations and NGOs expressed outrage at the administration’s proposal and the values it reflected. Less expected was a letter sent to Congress by a coalition of 150 retired generals and admirals, who called on legislators to reject the Trump budget request and “ensure that our nation has the civilian resources necessary to protect our national security.”

They also expressed concern over the high number of vacant positions in key diplomatic posts and wrote “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defence is critical to keeping America safe.”

Less likely to be opposed by Congress is the administration’s defence budget request, which includes $15.3 billion to support the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition, which represents a $2 billion increase. The funds include $1.4 billion to train and equip US allies, including $850 million for the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga, $300 million for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and $250 million for border security. The funding request assumes that approximately 6,000 US troops would remain in Syria and Iraq.

Overall, the Trump budget requests an $80 billion increase in funds for the Pentagon, 13% more than last year. This is in addition to a 12% increase in funding for the Homeland Security Department.