Senators in Search of a Foreign Policy

Senators in Search of a Foreign Policy


Thoka Maer

The range of problems facing the United States abroad is daunting: a volatile Middle East, an unpredictable, mischievous Russia, a truly menacing North Korea. To say nothing of destabilizing global challenges like the mass migration of desperate refugees, and climate change. President Trump’s “America First” approach, which calls for disengagement from old alliances and responsibilities, is a dodge, not an answer. What’s needed is a robust foreign policy led by a reinvigorated State Department that right now is suffering from presidential neglect, poor leadership and an absence of professional firepower in pivotal positions.

Two people who understand the urgency of helping the department recover from the damages inflicted by Mr. Trump are Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. Leading members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, they have sought to rally their colleagues around a bipartisan spending bill for 2018 that would strengthen the department and replenish important foreign aid programs.

Last week, the two won unanimous committee approval for a $51 billion bill for the State Department and foreign aid, about $11 billion more than the administration requested. While the total is less than what Congress allocated for 2017, and less than necessary given the international challenges, it’s nowhere near the 30 percent cut that Mr. Trump; his budget chief, Mick Mulvaney; and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had absurdly insisted was imperative.

As interesting as the bipartisan vote was the Republican-led committee’s report, which pulled no punches in blistering Mr. Trump and his aides for proposing a budget in May that amounted to an “apparent doctrine of retreat” from the world. “The lessons learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad,” the report said. “Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development.”

That argument strikes at the heart of Mr. Trump’s approach, which favors warlike rhetoric and a reliance on the Pentagon as the primary levers of American power, while negotiation and diplomacy are given short shrift. At more than $600 billion annually, the military budget accounts for almost 19 percent of the federal budget, and Mr. Trump would add billions more for additional Navy ships and nuclear weapons. The State Department and its foreign aid programs account for 1 percent of the overall budget.

Sixteen years of war against terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have given the military what it and many others see as a priority claim on federal dollars, leaving the State Department in a subsidiary role. Mr. Trump reinforced that trend with his proposed budget cuts, which would eliminate more than 2,500 diplomatic and development jobs and make major reductions in diplomatic security (36 percent in budget cuts), H.I.V./AIDS programs (17 percent), international disaster assistance and food aid (a whopping 77 percent) and migration and refugee assistance (18 percent). When the “unjustified” budget cuts were announced, the committee report said, they caused so much concern in foreign capitals that China and Russia were able to “hijack our national security narrative” as a commanding and confident power capable of leading the world.

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