Gates, Clinton oppose cuts to State Department budget

Defense Secretary Robert Gates joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in speaking out against the Senate Budget Committee's proposed cuts to international programs in the State Department budget. Military and diplomatic missions are too linked not to fund one side of them, they argued.

William B. Plowman/Meet the Press/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (l.) and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (c.) speak with moderator David Gregory on Meet the Press on April 9. Clinton and Gates sent letters to the Senate Budget Committee renouncing proposed cuts to the State Department budget.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not stand alone when she objected this week to a Senate Budget Committee plan to take much of a nearly $10 billion cut in President Obama’s proposed discretionary spending for next year from State Department and other international programs.

Joining her was Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in recent years has fought tirelessly for increasing the US government’s civilian international capacities. His argument: For the good of America’s long-term national security, the Pentagon must be able to relinquish some of the nation-building and other international development duties it has taken on by default.

More than perhaps any other two secretaries of Defense and State, Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton have worked as a team to promote the concept of “smart power” and the 21st-century’s demands for more effective and coordinated military and civilian operations. “The two of them together continue to emphasize that as we have a balanced national security strategy, we need to have a balanced national security budget to support that strategy,” says State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

That perspective is clear in Gates’s defense this week of fully funded State Department and other civilian international budgets. In a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) Gates hammered at what has become his signature theme, that civilian foreign affairs are “a critical component of an integrated and effective national security program.”

Calling full funding of both national defense and foreign affairs budgets “necessary for our national security and for ensuring our continued leadership in the world,” Gates said the president’s budget reflects “overall national security requirements” and the mutual dependency of military and civilian operations.

Senator Conrad has proposed cutting $4 billion from State Department and other international budget requests – or nearly the equivalent of the $4.9 billion increase Obama is seeking for the State Department.

In her letter to the Budget Committee, Clinton notes that more than two-thirds of the proposed increase would go directly to programs in the war-on-terrorism “frontline states” of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The understood message: These are programs, like $1.5 billion a year in civilian development assistance to Pakistan, that you in the Senate have recently mandated.

She also picks up on Gates’s argument about the growing hand-in-glove coordination of the work carried out by the military and civilian diplomats and development experts. “Our [civilian] missions are increasingly integrated with those of our Defense Department counter-parts,” she says. “Cuts to the civilian components can no longer be seen in isolation or having little impact on our national security strategy.”

Members of Congress are under pressure, especially in this election year, to demonstrate sensitivity to public concerns about a growing budget deficit and national debt. But at the same time, any reductions in defense spending are anathema to many constituencies, while cuts to programs like food aid, poverty reduction, or climate change are seen as more palatable.

Recognizing that, Clinton is trying to underscore the cost-effectiveness of many civilian foreign-affairs interventions. In her letter to Conrad, for example, she claims that the $2.6 billion requested for State and US AID work in Iraq would allow the Defense Department to decrease its Iraq spending by $16 billion – “a powerful illustration,” she says, “of the return on civilian investments.”

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