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Experts Warn Against Planned Cuts To U.S. Foreign Assistance


If President Trump's budget office gets its way, the Pentagon's budget will increase by $54 billion. To make up for that spending, the Trump administration is proposing a lot of deep cuts, including to the State Department and foreign aid. That has some military experts worried, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was fond of saying there are more U.S. military band musicians than there are American diplomats. Trump's defense secretary, James Mattis, once made the case for State Department funding when he was testifying in a Senate hearing in 2013.


JAMES MATTIS: If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.

KELEMEN: So when word started going around Washington that the Foreign Affairs budget could be cut by as much as 30 percent or more, 121 retired generals and admirals signed a letter to Congress. Lieutenant General Dan Christman was among them.

DAN CHRISTMAN: It's a hacksaw to a budget that really needs to be dealt with with a scalpel. It just worried the daylights out of I think every one of us that have recognized how serious this would be in terms of protecting U.S. interests and U.S. lives going forward.

KELEMEN: Christman worked closely with diplomats in Kosovo and traveled around the globe with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. So he says he understands the value of conflict resolution and development.

CHRISTMAN: In fact, my first deployment - it was in Korea in 1966, a country was just beginning its early stages of development. And now the sixth-largest economy in the world, it was U.S. development assistance that helped paved the way for the Korean economic miracle.

KELEMEN: But it is too early to get worried about this budget process, says Brett Schaefer of The Heritage Foundation.

BRETT SCHAEFER: People that are ringing the alarm bells about these cuts without knowing the details are simply jumping the gun.

KELEMEN: He says the international affairs budget grew substantially in the Obama administration and now stands at about $50 billion a year.

SCHAEFER: Those agencies have gotten used to those large budgets, and they have also used that increased funding to address and support initiatives that were of particular importance to the Obama administration, notably climate change.

KELEMEN: Streamlining the State Department will do little to close budget gaps, though. Jeremy Konyndyk, an aid official in the Obama administration, says there's a good return on the investment in foreign affairs. He says America is safer if it can alleviate problems elsewhere.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: Famine was just declared in South Sudan. There are pockets of famine in Nigeria and Yemen, and other countries are right on the brink. So there are people who would be starving and dying today if not for that U.S. food assistance.

KELEMEN: He says a program that President Bush started to fight AIDS in Africa is keeping more than 11 million people alive. And in the Obama administration, Konyndyk worked with U.S. civilian and military experts to contain Ebola in West Africa. He says the U.S. needs to invest in all of these tools, and this will be the first big test for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

KONYNDYK: If he stands by and allows his department and the other agencies under his authority to be gutted at a level of 30 to 40 percent, I think that becomes the defining legacy of his term as secretary. And really everything else he does is inconsequential. So he needs to fight this.

KELEMEN: Tillerson has been keeping a low profile, but aid has come up in some of his meetings with nervous allies, including with one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, Egypt. Egypt's foreign ministry says Tillerson assured his Egyptian counterpart yesterday that U.S. aid will continue. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.