January 21, 2011

What Some Conservatives Don't Yet Get

Yesterday, 165 House Republicans voted to completely de-fund USAID as part of austerity measures designed to address the U.S. budget crisis. They suggested a lot of other cuts, but you can guess what they did not suggest cutting: the budget of the Department of Defense. They suggested we zero out the budget for USAID but not make any changes to the amount we are currently spending within the Department of Defense.

The FY2011 Department of Defense budget request was $548.9 billion dollars for the base budget, which does not include the $159.3 billion dollars set aside for "overseas contingency operations" such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just to give you a little perspective, the International Affairs budget we set aside for foreign and security assistance programs totaled, according to Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams, $500 billion in the three decades between FY1977 and FY2007 -- $50 billion less than the base budget for the Department of Defense for one year of operations!

But that incredible disparity is not what folks need to know about USAID. The question that last factoid should prompt in the heads of at least 165 people in Washington, DC is, "Wait a minute, why is discussion of the USAID budget included in the authoritative book
on the national security budget?"

The answer is that Adams and Williams understand what every U.S. military officer and defense official from the youngest second lieutenant at Fort Benning to Bob Gates understands: the money we spend through USAID is part of our national security budget. Some money, such as the money we spent through both the defense and aid budgets in Haiti last year, we spend for mostly altruistic purposes. But the two biggest recipients of U.S. international aid through USAID are Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can have a separate debate about whether or not this money is being well spent, but we cannot have a debate as to why it is being spent: it is quite obviously being spent to advance what are seen to be the national security interests of the United States.

USAID, as an organization, no doubt wastes a lot of money. But so too, to put it mildly, does the Department of Defense. I have no doubt, in fact, that the amount of money USAID wastes in any given year amounts to a small fraction of the amount of money the Department of Defense loses through cost overruns for the F-35 alone.

The bottom line here is that the biggest defender of the USAID budget will be Bob Gates -- and any U.S. military officer who has ever served with someone from the Office of Transition Initiatives in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.

You want to spend less money on aid and development in Afghanistan? Fine, I agree with you. But get of USAID? Now you're just being ignorant.