Think tank: Shift foreign assistance programs, funds back to State

Washington should overhaul how it provides assistance to other nations after a decade at war has seen the Defense Department assume an unprecedented role in that task, according to a new report by the Stimson Center, a think tank concerned with issues of national and international security.

U.S. officials should take a number of steps to shift the lead role in planning and conducting programs to assist other nations back to the State Department, Stimson researchers found. 

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Among their recommendations are ways to improve congressional oversight of such programs.

“Restructuring security assistance programs in a governance framework will require a thorough legislative branch review and restructuring of existing authorities and funding,” states the report, written by Stimson’s Gordon Adams and Rebecca Williams. Adams oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton administration.

Only those foreign assistance programs “directly linked to forward-deployed U.S. forces in combat” should remain under DoD’s purview, the report states. All others should be placed under Foggy Bottom’s control.

“A single overall security assistance account should be created at the State Department, with sub-accounts for specific purposes,” Adams and Williams concluded.

Authorizing language for such accounts and authorities should include explicit requirements for regular notification to the Congress about program decisions above a certain fiscal threshold.

The Stimson report comes as some in Congress, especially some budget-minded conservative House Republicans, are targeting foreign aid programs for big cuts.

The 2011 government spending plan excludes billions in cuts to diplomatic programs previously approved by the House.

A version of a continuing resolution passed by the House in February (H.R. 1) would have trimmed 2010 funding levels for the State Department and foreign affairs programs by $3.8 billion. But the compromise funding bill that became law includes a cut of only around $500 million, according to a Senate Appropriations Committee statement.

"H.R. 1 would have ... caused serious harm to U.S. embassy and consular operations which millions of Americans who live, work and study abroad depend on every day, and to programs that directly protect U.S. national security and other important diplomatic and economic interests, and which provide life-saving aid to victims of disease, war and natural disasters," the Senate panel said in the statement.

House Republicans argue these are monies better used to reduce the federal deficit.

A senior Democratic senator said he sees big cuts on the horizon.

"There will be cutbacks, I assume," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, said April 12. 

As part of those cuts during the 2012 budget cycle, "some programs will be canceled," he added.

Foreign-aid advocates like Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have said they plan to push the line that the costs of spending U.S. funds in places such as Egypt outweigh the potential ramifications of not spending there. Kerry is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A major scuffle on the issue is expected in the coming months as Congress takes up the 2012 State Department budget.

The Stimson Center report also calls for the president to be given greater sway in determining when military hardware, training and other items can be shifted to other nations. 

The researchers’ report does not call for the military to leave the security assistance realm, calling for DoD to have the authority to provide aid where U.S. troops are deployed. Under the recommended framework, the secretary of State would have to sign on, and the president would have to greenlight such actions.

Overall, such a “consolidation of authorities will make decisions on countries and funding more straightforward and facilitate congressional oversight,” the report states. “Restrictions on assistance, including the provisions of the Foreign Assistance Act, should be made clear.”

As the Iraq war comes to an end, and Washington moves closer to a partial withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, Adams and William argue now is a good time for Congress and the administration to mull security assistance reforms.

The report calls for a focus on “governance,” meaning helping other nations establish the means to run a stable country with credible institutions and healthy economies.

“This framework links security assistance to the objective of building effective state institutions that can provide internal and border security; protect the rule of law, including adhering to internationally recognized standards of human rights; support a duly constituted, responsive government; meet the needs of the citizens; and facilitate social and economic development,” according to the study.