Since the Trump Administration’s first budget blueprint was circulated at the end of February, Washington has been abuzz with rumors about where massive budget cuts were coming in order to fund President Trump’s desired $54 billion defense and security budget increase. Substantial cuts at most federal agencies are sure to be necessary to fund what President Trump has called a “public safety and national security budget.” In view of these planned shifts, it will be months before the dust settles on final budget figures, even with Republican control of Congress, and the debate will be anything but civil. Beyond defense and homeland security, practically nothing in Washington will be immune, except certain “entitlements” the Trump Administration is still afraid to lay a finger on. Fortunately, the congressional review process will play an important role in counterbalancing The Trump White House’s impulses, but one cannot derive anything but a message of total disdain for both diplomacy and foreign assistance from Trump’s initial budget plan.
Tillerson agrees with some cuts, argues for a “soft landing”
The general outline of the planned reductions includes as much as a 37% cut of the current $51.1 billion international affairs budget (other reports describe a milder 30% cut). By way of explanation, when we talk of the international affairs budget, we mean foreign assistance of almost all kinds, as well as the operating expenses of the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID). The Associate Press reported that Secretary Tillerson has even sent a positive response on the cuts to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but proposed to phase in these cuts over a three-year period, with a 20% reduction in the first budget year, likening his plan to a “soft landing.” There is no disagreement, however, between Tillerson and the OMB, that there is significant fat to be cut from the international affairs budget and it was reported that Tillerson noted that “an aggressive scrubbing of the budget” was appropriate. While the bulk of the cuts would be in aid programs, staffing reductions would also be involved, most immediately by the elimination of certain “Special Envoy” positions created under the Obama Administration. A significant reorganization of the Department and USAID, including a possible merger, would also yield other savings, as well as cutbacks in outside security contractors at U.S. embassies.
The budget battle is just beginning
As soon as the news of the proposed cuts emerged, public reactions began, and State found some unexpected allies. Even before Members of Congress could comment on specific programs, some 120 retired generals signed a letter calling on Congress to fully fund the international affairs budget. More than anything, senior military leaders understand that effective and focused diplomacy, combined with judicious use of foreign aid, can prevent or contain conflict and eliminate or reduce the need for military operations, a lesson that as of yet seems to have eluded the Trump White House. But give it time, and let the Washington budget process work its wonders.
On the plus side, there are a few indicators in the last weeks that American diplomacy has not fallen into a deep coma from which there would be no recovery. On March 7 the State Department finally resumed press briefings after a two-month hiatus and announced a planned trip to Asia (Japan-Korea-China) by Secretary Tillerson starting approximately March 15, but interestingly without a traveling press contingent. However, nothing was announced so far on a new Deputy Secretary for the Department. In addition to Tillerson’s Asia trip, The State Department is organizing a large anti-ISIS coalition meeting to be held in Washington beginning March 22. So March is shaping up to be substantially busier in Foggy Bottom than February, when the State Department cafeteria was reported to be crawling with bored diplomats on extended coffee breaks waiting for new instructions from their political appointee superiors. At least they are getting some now.