The Office of Management and Budget on Monday declined to say how precisely President Donald Trump intends to cut every other federal department to find $54 billion to increase military spending.
But one budget category is clearly in his sights, said one OMB official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity per White House policy: foreign aid.
“This budget expects the rest of the world to step up in some of the programs this country has been so generous in funding in the past,” the OMB official said.
That left many foreign affairs experts scratching their heads. Foreign aid amounts to just roughly one percent of federal spending, and many of the programs the money funds arguably are considered important to U.S. national security. Considering the small amount involved, foreign policy experts questioned the wisdom of cutting such a small investment that pays so many dividends.
“It sends a message that the U.S. is retreating from the world, and it’s not sustaining commitments and alliances with our good friends,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “And the consequences are those good friends will have to make other choices if they can’t count on the United States and find other good friends.”
“We’re going to do more with less,” Trump told governors Monday during a speech at the National Governors Association Meeting in Washington.
“This budget expects the rest of the world to step up in some of the programs this country has been so generous in funding in the past,” said the OMB official.
In fiscal year 2015, U.S. foreign assistance was estimated at $48.57 billion, or 1.3 percent of total federal budget authority. About 43 percent went to bilateral economic development programs, 35 percent for military aid and non-military security assistance; 16 percent for humanitarian activities; and 6 percent to support the work of multilateral institutions, according to the Congressional Research Service. The top recipients were Afghanistan ($5.4 billion), Israel ($3.1 billion), Iraq ($1.8 billion) and Egypt ($1.4 billion).
The OMB officials wouldn’t address specific components of foreign aid that would be cut, including how programs with military components might be affected. But presumably any aid to countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Egypt and Israel that doesn’t come directly from the Pentagon would be vulnerable.
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas, cautions against prematurely “proclaiming that the sky is falling before we know that it actually is.” But he worries that the administration will also look to cut major anti-drug programs in Colombia and Mexico.
The Obama administration pledged $450 million in aid to support peace in Colombia after a half-century of bloody combat between the government and leftist rebels known for drug trafficking and kidnappings. And about $1 billion more has been allocated to be spent on the 7-year-old Merida initiative, which fights drug trafficking in Mexico.
“These aren’t giveaway programs,” Farnsworth said. “These are not some sort of do-gooderism. This is hard-nosed support for an agenda that we believe is in our interests because it will reduce violence and it will reduce narcotics trafficking.”
Trump described his proposal as “a public safety and national security budget.”
Trump is expected to release his final budget proposal in March, but he promised to provide more details Tuesday during his joint address to Congress. He emphasized that the U.S. service men and women will have the tools they need to “deter war and, when called upon, to fight in our name.”
“It will include a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it,” Trump said.