US budget requests reflect disregard for foreign aid
The Trump administration is not a big believer in “soft power” — the term used to refer to a country’s non-coercive foreign policy tools, including diplomacy and foreign aid. This is most apparent in the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018: The White House wants to slash US foreign aid by more than 30% from FY 2016 levels — from $23.2 billion to $15.4 billion. The administration proposed cutting funding for the US State Department’s diplomatic operations from $55 billion in 2016 to $40 billion.
Most shocking — and perhaps most revealing of US President Donald Trump team’s disregard for foreign aid — was the proposed reduction in US assistance to Tunisia, a promising but still fragile success story. If the White House gets its way, Tunisia’s security assistance would plunge from $82 million to $15 million and economic assistance would drop by one-third.
Lebanon would face a similarly large cut in security assistance (82% reduction), as do Iraq and Bahrain (each more than 80%). Iraq, however, would receive an increase in economic aid from $122 million to $300 million. The UN-recognised government in Libya is slated to receive more economic aid. Jordan’s security and economic aid are targeted for cuts of more than 20%.
Israel’s aid remains steady, as does Egypt’s security assistance. However, the administration proposes a reduction in Egypt’s economic assistance from $143 million to $75 million.
The White House, however, will not get its way. The US Congress determines the final US budget and sets spending levels for programmes via the annual appropriations bills and members of Congress from both parties have made it clear that Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign assistance are a non-starter.
US Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced during a hearing that “the budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with.” In a rebuke to the administration, Corker added that “it would be a waste of time” to even review the president’s proposals “because it’s not what is going to occur.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who testified at the Senate hearing, claimed that, despite the reduction in funds, the United States would “continue to be the leader in international development, global health, democracy and good governance initiatives and humanitarian efforts.” Senators from both parties voiced scepticism about how the United States could maintain global leadership on such issues without dedicating funds to the effort.
Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the White House proposal in itself had a “chilling impact” on diplomats and foreign aid professionals and sent the wrong message to the rest of the world about US leadership. “I am deeply concerned that your administration’s approach does not place America first but rather leaves America alone,” Cardin told Tillerson. He went on to say that Congress would write its own budget that would not be “remotely” close to the one proposed by the White House.
Tillerson responded to the criticism by saying that “throughout my career, I have never believed, or experienced, that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it… Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective. Our people will.”
The administration’s harshest critic was Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has not hesitated to criticise Trump on any number of issues. Graham, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations, lashed out at the administration for nearly 15 minutes while his staff presented numerous graphs and quotes mounted on poster board to show the effects of the administration’s proposed cuts.
“I want the country to know that this budget request is radical and reckless when it comes to soft power,” Graham said. “This account is hit hard not as a result of scrutiny about how the State Department works but [as a result of] budget pressure.”
Given the bipartisan opposition to the administration’s proposed funding levels, it is highly likely that Congress will increase the levels when it passes the final version of the foreign operations appropriations bill. Less certain is how any additional funds above the administration’s request would be allocated, although reductions in aid to Israel are all but impossible to imagine.
The administration’s proposed drastic reductions may simply reflect the way Trump likes to negotiate: Make outrageous demands knowing that the final agreement will be a compromise. So, although Congress has flatly rejected Trump’s opening position, it is almost certain that the final bill will contain cuts, in some cases substantial.
Appropriations bills must be passed and signed by the president no later than September 30 (FY 2018 begins October 1). If this deadline is not met, Congress may pass short-term “continuing resolutions” that maintain funding at current levels until a bill can be passed into law.