New funds for foreign aid

By Gordon Adams | February 12, 2008

Observers declared the new Bush administration budget request dead on arrival because it contains only a $70 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan, assumes the president’s tax cuts will be extended, and cuts Medicare. When it comes to security spending, however, Congress should seize the opportunity to begin rebalancing the tools of U.S. statecraft. The 8.5 percent increase proposed for diplomacy and foreign assistance promises to begin the process of strengthening U.S. civilian instruments, which badly need reform and additional funds.

The defense budget, on the other hand, needs a trip to the woodshed. The Pentagon planning process and budget requests are now entirely out of control. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates claims his request is for $515 billion, but when you add on the Iraq/Afghanistan funds, the nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department, and another Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental request of around $100 billion that is expected later this year, the overall defense budget rises to more than $700 billion. The 7.5 percent, $36 billion increase proposed in the base budget alone roughly equals the entire foreign policy budget request.

The administration has asked for increased funding for foreign policy for the past seven years. And the State Department and USAID also received healthy supplemental funding during the same period for programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those prior requests were deceptive. By-and-large, they were aimed at cleaning up the troubling consequences of an unplanned occupation of Iraq and at adding enough diplomats to staff the U.S. embassy in Baghdad–the largest U.S. Embassy in the world. They also reflected two Bush foreign assistance initiatives: major budget requests for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and for the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative. These three priorities have sucked the oxygen out of funding for broader U.S. international strategy, diplomacy, and foreign assistance.

This new budget request is different. It calls for more than $5 billion for the AIDS Initiative and $2.25 billion for the MCC. A supplemental request later in the year is likely to include funding for economic and security assistance programs in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, emergency food aid and disaster assistance, counter-narcotics activities, refugee support, and more foreign aid administrators. But other initiatives in this budget request reflect a growing effort to reform how the State Department and USAID do business.

Perhaps the most important change is the request for 20 percent more funding for USAID operating expenses, along with a 96 percent increase in that agency’s Capital Investment Fund. The administration seems to have finally recognized that the United States cannot keep creating new assistance programs around the globe while cutting the size of the staff we need to run them. That practice, in place for decades, has led to a privatization of foreign assistance delivery that has not always served U.S. interests. While additional reform of the way USAID delivers assistance and administers contracts is necessary, beefing up the staff is a good first step.

More broadly, the State Department is seeking to add 1,076 foreign-service officers in the next year. The more than 1,000 officers added during Colin Powell’s tenure as secretary of state were sucked into Iraq, leaving empty slots in overseas embassies and missions. More officers are needed. Some of this request is also intended to make room for foreign-service officers to train with military officers in the defense educational system. Since the two forces frequently operate in tandem, this training is essential for them to overcome some of the gulf in the two departments’ cultures.

The proposed expansion of the foreign service reflects a major new initiative in the foreign affairs budget–a Civilian Stabilization Initiative (CSI)–at a cost of nearly $250 million. This initiative would finally respond to the need for a U.S. government civilian capacity to respond to crises in fragile or failing states, instead of deploying the military into such situations.

The CSI proposes to create a 250-member Active Response Corps and a 2,000-member Standby Response Corps to be ready for such crises. These personnel would come from a number of departments–State, Justice, Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. In addition, the funds would support the creation of a 2,000-person Civilian Reserve Corps based in the private sector.

There are and should be reservations about establishing a large U.S. civilian intervention capability, which some have characterized as a colonial office. At the same time, the U.S. civilian capacity to respond to crises in failing and post-conflict states has been tried in Iraq and Afghanistan, and found wanting. The current expansion of Provincial Reconstruction teams does not make up for this failure, as their effectiveness is mixed, and they tend to be “pickup teams,” dedicated but learning on the job.

The United States will continue to be drawn into crises–ideally accompanied by our allies and with international support–but it lacks the capability to play a civilian role. The United States is quick to give the military a role, but this does not always sit well with the recipient country or populace. Balancing the foreign policy toolkit means supporting a stronger civilian capability to help deliver recovery, the elements of governance, and reconstruction.

Other interesting features of the diplomacy and foreign assistance budget include: a new International Clean Technology Fund proposal, a new commitment to grant assistance for low-income countries, significant forgiveness of debt for the poorest of these countries, and a controversial initiative for counter-narcotics activities in Mexico and Central America. The personnel initiatives may be the most important, however. They begin the process of building badly needed capacity in the foreign affairs complex.

It is critical for Congress to take a good look at the national security budget, and ensure that it starts to discipline defense, while strengthening and reforming U.S. civilian capacity.

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Topics: Columnists

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