Save America's foreign policy budget

A choice between a robust US diplomatic program and a healthy federal budget is a false one. As events in the Arab world show, now is not the time to whack the State Department's budget.

In newly budget-conscious America, here’s a suggestion that is routinely offered on talk shows: End foreign aid; shore up America first. It’s a similar cry on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers want to cut the proposed budget for the State Department in half.

This week, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, framed it this way: Cuts in foreign-affairs funding may be painful, but a bankrupt United States would have even less leverage in the world.

The choice between a robust US diplomatic program and a healthy federal budget is a false one. Foreign aid amounts to about 1 percent of the federal budget – not 25 percent, as is commonly thought by many Americans in a recent poll.

But think beyond that statistic to the concept that active and positive engagement abroad ultimately means a more secure America at home. When US aid and diplomacy prevent international crisis, that’s good for markets, not to mention humanity.

Consider, for instance, what America has to lose or gain in the uprising for democracy in the Arab world. Instability and uncertainty in Libya have caused a spike in world oil prices. That, in turn, affects American consumers.

At the same time, it is US consular officers who evacuated Americans from Egypt and Libya; US programs that trained Egypt’s military leaders who then refused to shoot on their own people; intense US diplomacy that helped push the United Nations Security Council to approve sanctions against Libyan authorities.

And in hot wars, such as Afghanistan and before that, Iraq, the US military has come to realize how much it needs American civilian-side expertise and aid to win over populations. There’s not a bigger supporter for State Department funding in Washington than Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The US needs to exercise both “hard” and “soft” power, he argues.

Neither is diplomacy a bad deal for the American taxpayer. In Iraq, American civil servants are replacing US soldiers in helping that country further stabilize. The transfer of duties saves US taxpayers. The Pentagon will save $45 billion this year as troops come home, while the State Department will increase its costs by less than $4 billion.

“Every business owner I know would gladly invest $4 to save $45,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she defended the proposed $56 billion State Department budget on the Hill this week.

Meanwhile, in the race for global influence, the US is in danger of falling behind China. The Chinese have rolled out new English-language broadcasts to other countries while the US is cutting back. Beijing is wooing US allies and friends that often vote with America at the UN.

“Now would be the wrong time to pull back,” Secretary Clinton correctly summed up.

That’s not to say there’s no budget fat in Foggy Bottom. The State Department is a bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies, it can operate more efficiently. It also can’t be exempt from tough choices. The president’s proposed budget for 2012, for instance, cuts economic assistance to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia by 15 percent.

But when China is on the rise, when democracy is catching its first breath in the Arab world, when American diplomats are critically engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, now is not the time to whack the State Department’s budget.

Share the burden with America’s friends and allies? Yes. But drop its responsibility? No.

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