By Amb. Patrick N. Theros
The full quote from Secretary of Defense James Mattis reads “If State Department funding gets cut I need to buy more ammo.” This might appear counterintuitive coming from a guy whom President Trump appointed because they call him “Mad Dog.”
However, another 121 retired generals and admirals signed a letter that supported Secretary Mattis and noted that State and related agencies “lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, [the military] “needs strong partners to combat issues that drive extremism, including insecurity, injustice, hopelessness, and lack of opportunity.”
This followed the Trump White House announcement of a proposed defense budget that increases spending by 10% ($54 billion) and took the cut from domestic agencies, especially, State Department operations and foreign assistance.
Steve Bannon and his hypernationalist colleagues in the White House see themselves as grand strategists; they are in fact little kids playing soldier. They believe overwhelming military power resolves all problems. They have contempt for diplomatic professionals and soft power.
They know the American public has long been conditioned to believe that a huge foreign assistance budget has pauperized America for the benefit of foreigners. Therefore, Mr. Bannon and company see no political cost to cutting foreign aid.
The popular ignorance is real and extends to virtually all levels of society. In 1994, I spoke to the Foreign Affairs Association in a major Midwestern city. My audience was incensed that my office had a $50,000 dollar program training foreign police to protect airlines (never mind they might fly on one of them).
I asked my outraged audience to guess what percentage of the federal budget went to foreign assistance. All but one said it exceeded 30%; the holdout guessed “below 10 percent.” Admittedly, I was playing “gotcha” but I did enjoy their chagrin when I told them the actual figure was 0.7%, (seven tenths of 1 percent). The current foreign assistance budget is still below 1 percent.
There is no “there” there. Zeroing out the $37 billion foreign aid budget – even if anyone dared cut the $3.4 billion guaranteed to Israel annually – won’t cover the $54 billion Defense budget increase. The remaining $17 billion would zero out the $17 billion State Department operations budget. Even if cuts are spread among other agencies, State would still have to close embassies all over the world.
The generals and admirals know something that Bannon and company will not tell the president. Embassies and diplomats are an essential part of America’s national defense. Going to war costs billions and destroys thousands of lives. Diplomats can get most of what we want for pennies on the dollar. Ask the generals and admirals. Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military philosopher, wrote: “Cannons are the last argument of Kings” and not the first.
Since 1990, the United States has launched four major foreign military operations: Kuwait in ‘91, Somalia in ‘92, Afghanistan in ’01 and Iraq in ‘03. Ask yourselves: “Why did we succeed in the first and fail in the other three?” In Desert Storm, we accomplished our objectives; we liberated Kuwait, punished the Iraqi Army and got out quickly with minimal losses. Anyone who thinks the Somali operation (against a ragtag bunch of tribesmen) succeeded should read “Blackhawk Down.”
The best that we can say about the Afghan and Iraqi adventures is that they are ongoing train wrecks inside a tunnel with no light in sight. The difference? America had embassies in Baghdad and Kuwait before we went to war that made our strategy smart. (In fact, the diplomats also persuaded our allies to pay for that war and leave us with a modest profit.) In Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we had closed our embassies years before; we went in nearly blind.
In fairness to the current administration, we missed the signals predicting the Arab Spring and did not know how to react to the civil wars in Syria and Libya in part because we cut diplomatic and intelligence budgets drastically at the end of the Cold War.
Occasionally, diplomacy fails or we get impatient. Even then embassies are essential to military success. Diplomats give our strategic planners a treasure trove of information that makes for realistic planning to fight the war and then plan on how to end it.
American diplomats hobnobbing with officials, journalists, academics, taxi drivers, and barbers among others collect 90 percent of relevant information about a country. (What we do not learn, our wives learn from their wives.) This frees up the spooks to concentrate their satellites, communications intercepts and recruited spies on the remaining 10 percent. Without embassies, the intelligence agencies must spread their search so widely that it produces a very thin product.
We badly botched the follow-up in Afghanistan and Iraq because we knew so little about their internal dynamics. We depended on Afghan and Iraqi exiles who exploited American politicians. In our ignorance, we installed these kleptocratic exiles in power and then made them wealthy with American taxpayer money. A lot of Americans also got rich as well.
Now we hear bellicose talk from the White House that goes with increased defense spending and decreased diplomacy. Iran, has been “put on notice” and the president tweeted threats to North Korea. Please note we have had no diplomatic presence in either country for decades and yet we threaten war. Then draw your own conclusions.