Pentagon defends foreign aid as essential to national security

Senior Pentagon officials are making an impassioned argument against cuts to America’s foreign aid budget, putting them at odds with conservatives in the House. 

Some lawmakers argue that the billions of dollars spent on global aid should be targeted for reductions as Congress looks to bring down the deficit. 

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The House-passed 2011 continuing resolution, H.R. 1, included a $121 million cut to the annual United States Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, which would amount to a 9 percent funding hit.

The State Department has pushed back against the proposed cuts, and senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, have become vocal and powerful allies.

Proponents of foreign aid spending in both chambers know they face a fight with conservative budget hawks who view paring the deficit as their top priority. Aid supporters plan to echo Pentagon and State Department officials in calling the funding a national-security imperative. 

But congressional aides say many new and establishment Republicans have their minds made up. The midterm elections showed taxpayers want spending cuts, said one GOP aide, and foreign aid should not be immune.

“I’m frankly surprised that there are so many congressional Democrats arguing loudly against cutting spending when the reverberating demand from the voters is: cut spending,” the GOP aide said.

For several years, Gates has argued in favor of robust State Department and foreign aid budgets. He has said in several public forums that investing in development projects around the world is cheaper than deploying U.S. military forces.

This year, some of Gates’s top lieutenants have rallied to the cause. 

On Wednesday, House Armed Services Committee member Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) warned about potential cuts to the annual USAID budget.

Petraeus argued against any USAID cuts at the hearing, saying foreign aid should be viewed as a national security expense.

A central aspect of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy — which Petraeus wrote — is to clear and hold disputed territory, and then work with local officials to build up their economies and governance institutions.

The U.S. military is expert at the first two elements of the strategy, but it is not designed for the third, Petraeus told two congressional panels this week. That is where the State Department and USAID come in, he said.

Such dollars allow U.S. diplomats and development officials “to build on what our troopers” have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, Petraeus said Wednesday.

Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that proposed cuts to accounts used to train and equip Afghan security forces would be “devastating.”

What’s more, such cuts could leave Afghan military and police forces unable to perform security missions, triggering “complications to broader timelines” for turning over control to indigenous forces, said Flournoy, considered a dark-horse candidate to replace Gates at the Pentagon.

Those calls against foreign-aid cuts come as Defense and State leaders say their agencies are working together better than ever before. 

Washington lore is rich with tales of clashes between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, but that tension has been notably absent in the current administration. 

Foreign development efforts are so crucial to Gates that he recently asked Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to allow Defense and State officials to testify jointly about their 2012 budget requests.

It was intended as a sign of Defense and State solidarity. But last week’s hearing did not go as executive-branch officials had hoped, and it shone a light on the growing resistance on Capitol Hill to foreign-aid spending hikes.

Instead of spreading the word about the need for State and USAID aid programs, Conrad and Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE (R-Ala.), the panel’s ranking member, bashed the Obama administration for seeking larger budgets for those organizations, the Pentagon and a list of other federal agencies.

Sessions panned DOD’s request to boost its base budget by 5.5 percent over its 2011 plan, and State for seeking a 10.5 percent bump. 

Washington is “in denial,” said Sessions, adding those budget requests are “not acceptable.”“I don’t believe they are going to be approved,” he said loudly.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn Forbes KerryFor the sake of national security, Trump must honor the Iran deal Bernie Sanders’s 1960s worldview makes bad foreign policy DiCaprio: History will ‘vilify’ Trump for not fighting climate change MORE (D-Mass.) acknowledged Wednesday that foreign aid programs face an uphill battle as the nation grapples with its fiscal problems.

Proponents of foreign development spending must convince budget hawks that if the U.S. does not help nations like Egypt, “we will pay for it later,” Kerry said.

House Republicans are expected to lead the way on foreign-aid cuts.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a top advocate for such reductions.

“The American people are demanding that we carefully scrutinize our government spending, both domestic and foreign, both large and small,” Ros-Lehtinen said recently.

The chairwomen contends USAID’s budget grew by 147 percent between 2001 and 2010 — with 57 percent of that growth coming between 2008 and 2010.

Continuing those spending hikes “is just not feasible in light of what is happening here at home,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Those who complain about diminished levels of U.S. aid funding need to ask themselves: How much less would an insolvent United States be able to do?”