U.S. President Barack Obama's administration believes, more fervently than any of its predecessors, that helping weak and fragile states is a national security imperative. Obama said as much in one of his earliest campaign speeches, vowing to "roll back the tide of helplessness" in places that "stand on the brink of conflict or colapse." The 2010 National Security Strategy lays out the argument comprehensively, asserting that "an aggressive and affirmative development agenda … can strengthen the regional partners we need to help us stop conflict and counter global criminal networks;" foster global prosperity; advance democracy; and "position ourselves to better address key global challenges."
The administration's commitment to those precepts is about to be sorely tested, however, by Republicans who don't share its views. The new GOP majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has called for deep cuts in spending on international affairs. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, who chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has noted proudly that she presided over the third deepest cuts in spending for the current year of the 12 appropriations subcommittees. The $44.9 billion fiscal 2011 budget her subcommittee approved represents a cut of 8 percent from the 2010 budget, and 21 percent from the administration's proposed 2011 budget. She and the House leadership have promised even deeper cuts for the coming year. "I will ensure," Granger said in a statement, "that our foreign aid is not used as a stimulus bill for foreign countries."
The ideological difference between the two sides is crisply captured by the refusal of the Republican-controlled House to include international affairs -- which includes funding for the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), international bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as various development programs -- in the national security budget, which has generally been spared the axe. The GOP House bill thus proposes very modest cuts for defense, but very deep cuts for diplomacy and development. This has produced a backlash among international-minded Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Both John McCain of Arizona and Richard Lugar of Indiana say they accept the administration's argument that development assistance is a national security priority.
Well, that's a relief. Maybe the Senate, which will take up the budget bill in early March, will undo the House's handiwork which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said "will be devastating to national security." But it's not at all clear that the Senate Republicans mean the same thing as the president and the secretary of state when they talk about foreign aid. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois has said that while he supports a "Middle East stability package" for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, there's "not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program." Sen. Lindsay Graham, who will play a key role in Senate negotiations, similarly distinguishes between funds that are "essential to the war effort" and "an account that can be reduced."
House Republicans have said that they have protected funds for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, though in fact they proposed deep cuts in "economic support funds," which serve as one of the chief sources for that money, including the $7.5 billion, five-year commitment to provide aid to Pakistan. This suggests room for a possible compromise: Restore the funds for Middle East allies and the war effort, and accept some or all of the other House cuts in funding for public health and food security, the Millennium Challenge Account, the World Bank, diplomats, and USAID officials. Of course, if you believe what the Obama administration believes, even this middle ground would be an utter catastrophe.