Buying Ammunition: The Problem with the White House Budget

Buying Ammunition: The Problem with the White House Budget

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By Alexandra Stark


Last week, White House officials disclosed plans to increase the Department of Defense’s budget by $54 billion and to cut funding for non-Defense spending, including the State Department. What this allegedly balanced approach obscures is that Defense spending already dwarfs spending on diplomacy and development. The budget plan would increase DoD’s budget by 10 percent, but would cut State and USAID’s funding by a whopping 37 percent from current levels. In FY2015, about 16% of all federal spending went towards the military, while just 1.3% went towards international affairs. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has frequently pointed out, there are more personnel serving in military bands than there are Foreign Service Officers, a figure that puts a fine point on this drastic spending imbalance.


This disparity is problematic because it hobbles the US’ diplomatic capacity in a time when diplomacy is more needed than ever: as Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, observed in a recent op-ed, this budget cut would “endanger [the administration’s] ability to confront the most complex national security agenda in decades.” The ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has clearly demonstrated that there is no military solution without a corresponding political solution. Just a few weeks ago, my co-author Michael Kugelman and I wrote a piece for the National Interest describing the troubling political situation in Afghanistan. We argued that in Afghanistan,


government dysfunction is an obstacle to successful counterinsurgency operations. An important lesson from Iraq is that tactical battlefield successes are meaningless without a corresponding political strategy. When it comes to the “clear, hold and build” strategy, the security-focused clearing and holding is the easy part. Without a workable governing capacity, it’s impossible to do the building. In Iraq, the rise of ISIS and its initial battlefield gains can be attributed in part to the deterioration of the Iraqi government.



The tools to implement a political solution in Afghanistan, from local community development projects to high-level diplomatic visits, would be funded by the State Department and USAID. Without such funding, it will be virtually impossible to convert military successes into long-term stability. As retired General George Casey, who served as Army Chief of Staff from 2007 to 2011, has noted, the State Department budget is “an essential part of cementing the success of security operations.”


Furthermore, spending on diplomacy and development is an investment in preventing conflict that helps ensure that the US will need to spend less, in terms of both resources and lives, trying to end conflicts later on. Programs administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and USAID’s Complex Crises Fund, for example, work to prevent conflicts and violent extremism before they erupt.


Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2013, General (and now Secretary of Defense) Mattis stated that “if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition.” His testimony, in addition to a recent letter from more than 120 retired generals and admirals opposing cuts to the State Department budget, underscores that investing in diplomacy and foreign aid prevents and helps end conflicts at a smaller cost to the United States, both in terms of resources and human lives. This budget proposal amounts to buying ammunition to prepare for a fight that could be prevented in the first place.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting. The Administration’s ‘skinny budget’ proposal is exceedingly lacking in understanding of the important work ‘civilian’ peace-makers are doing in the world today. CSO and the Complex Crises Fund are excellent examples of government efforts that should NOT be reduced. The US Institute of Peace and US Peace Corps are 2 other organizations that are doing incredible work to expand American understanding of the world in which we will.

    As highlighted in your recent event concerning what the Administration needs to know about US-Russia nuclear cooperation highlighted, significant cuts are available to many DOD related budget line items, especially if we are able to work together better.

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