Budget Cuts Threaten America’s Smart Power

Posted February 8, 2011 at 6:10pm

Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen — and we don’t know which Middle Eastern country will next face serious stresses and strains of popular uprisings against autocracies. The United States has a vital interest in making sure that those popular protests for freedom are not squelched — and that they do not cascade into upheaval that results in extremist regimes or instability that provides breeding ground for terrorists or opportunities for them to find safe havens.

So far, the Obama administration has navigated through difficult waters in Egypt, trying to encourage needed change, reduce bloodshed during the demonstrations, foster democratic elements and help create conditions for free and fair elections. The Egyptian Army could have been a much more destructive element, using its force to put down protests a la Tiananmen Square. It did not, in part because of the relationships built over the years between the U.S. military and political decision-makers and the Egyptian military officers, many of them educated and trained here.

That is the power of smart power — the ability to use aid, diplomacy and the military as synergistic forces to pursue our national interest while also enabling the economic prosperity and rule of law in other societies. The result provides freedom and justice for them, infertile territory for terrorists, and markets for our goods and services to enable us to maintain our edge in the global economy. Ronald Reagan, the progenitor of the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and George W. Bush, responsible in large part for the Millennium Challenge Corp., among other innovations, both understood this point.

I am on the board of the Center for U.S. Global Engagement. This broad coalition of leaders, including hundreds of four-star generals, admirals and other military brass, have joined leaders of both parties to support the robust use of smart power by the U.S. across the world — which in turn means a robust international affairs budget. That budget, which incorporates foreign aid and diplomacy, makes up barely one cent on the dollar of the total federal budget — as good an investment as we could possibly have for the future. But it is high on the target list of budget cutters, and of most Americans, who think that it makes up 25 percent to 30 percent of the budget! Americans want cuts in foreign aid, too — down to about 10 percent of the budget.

It would be wonderful if, in this time of need for real and long-term fiscal austerity, we had a meaningful debate that could sort out wheat from chaff, spending that is a wise investment in America’s future and a necessary cushion for those who cannot fend for themselves or are victims of economic devastation that is not our own doing from that which is more frivolous or wasteful. Our aid programs could use serious oversight. In Egypt, we did not use our leverage to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to stop harassing nongovernmental organizations and imprisoning moderate leaders of Egypt’s civil society. We have not done enough to identify the wonderful things we do in impoverished countries, often letting China get much more credit for much less aid — which in turn means more Chinese contracts and trade. But there is a strong case to be made for spending more tax dollars on smart power.

 But as Alan Simpson wisely if impolitely said on CNN: “If you hear a politician get up and say, ‘I know we can get this done. We’re going to get rid of all earmarks; all waste, fraud and abuse; all foreign aid; Air Force One; all Congressional pensions’ — that’s just sparrow belch in the midst of the typhoon. That’s about 6, 8, 10 percent of where we are. So, I’m waiting for the politician to get up and say, ‘There’s only one way to do this: You dig into the big four — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense.’ And anybody giving you anything different than that, you want to walk out the door, stick your finger down your throat, and give them the green weenie.”

Unfortunately, it looks as if we will have to give the House the green weenie for its approach to the current fiscal year’s budget. Leave aside the question of whether it is wise economics to cut now in the face of a continuing weakness in our economy and in the global economy. The House majority has taken a near-monomaniacal focus on that one-eighth of the budget that is nonsecurity discretionary domestic spending, with Budget czar Paul Ryan calling for cuts this year that would amount to
16 percent to 19 percent across the board in nearly all departments and agencies.

But as Scott Lilly, former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and now at the Center for American Progress, has pointed out, the cuts cannot be across the board. Agencies like the FBI have nearly all their budgets applied to personnel (96 percent for the FBI); the same principle applies to border security, prisons, air traffic control and other programs that few among us would call waste, fraud and abuse. Cutting personnel does not result in immediate or short-term savings and can result in chaos. Leaving them aside means much larger cuts in other agencies. The National Institutes of Health? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? The biggest vulnerabilities are in areas where there are lots of grants, meaning education and health. And, of course, foreign aid.

The green weenie will hit the fan in a matter of weeks; will Americans respond well to the idea of massive cuts in education and health research? What about farm subsidies? Will we have a real debate on national priorities or a real education for Americans on what is actually in the budget? Or will we descend into the abyss of name-calling and government shutdowns?

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.