News, Op-Eds, Reports and Photos

November 4, 2011


History tells us: Fund diplomacy
By Peter Petrihos

Thirty-two years ago today, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The blow to America and its diplomatic efforts in the region was profound, and the impact on U.S. relationships in the Muslim world is still with us in many vivid ways.

Since that day, America has sought, with some difficulty, to re-establish its diplomatic footing in the Muslim world. Through years of wars and uprisings, acts of unspeakable terrorism and the recent "Arab Spring," our diplomats have worked to strengthen relations with the Muslim world — and, as a result of our persistence, most Muslims in the Middle East and around the world now aspire to our vision of self-determination, free markets and tolerance of others. While our friends and allies have at times opposed our policies and actions, what they have feared most was American indifference, neglect and abandonment.

As Congress turns to the difficult task of reducing the U.S. deficit, it is imperative that we equip our diplomats with the resources necessary to execute a foreign policy that reflects the lessons of history, exports our values and perpetuates lasting relationships. Failing to do so would put the United States and our allies at risk.

There is no more potent example of this risk than our neglect of Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, a withdrawal we worked hard to bring about with the help of a few persistent visionaries. In many ways, the work left undone in Afghanistan has evolved into the greatest current challenge of our national security policy.

As we prepare to withdraw our remaining forces from Iraq and draw down our forces in Afghanistan, we must take stock of this history and carefully consider the diplomats and programs that will remain when they depart. While strong support for the State Department honors the sacrifices in blood and treasure we have made, slashing resources from the International Affairs Budget now, as has been proposed, seems like a willful attempt to ignore the lessons of history and repeat costly mistakes.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "Development is cheaper than war." A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report calculated that Department of Defense spending for Afghanistan alone grew to $80.4 billion in 2010 alone. By comparison, the entire International Affairs Budget request for 2012 is $55.7 billion — this includes $8.7 billion for overseas contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The request reflects an increase of just 1 percent over the comparable State Department base budget in 2010.

For this relatively modest amount, diplomats at nearly 300 U.S. posts worldwide are busy making America's case to the world. Even as our nation is facing an unprecedented budget crisis, we should not lose sight of the fact that the entire International Affairs Budget accounts for less than 1 percent of total federal outlays. For that expenditure, we get direct support for the kind of institution-building and good-governance initiatives that Iraq and Afghanistan so desperately need to stand on their own — not to mention the multitude of life-saving programs in support of AIDS and malaria prevention and treatment, women and infant health, judicial and police training and counternarcotics programs, among many others.

Finally, we must recognize the extent to which our economic security is advanced by diplomatic and development efforts funded by the International Affairs Budget. According to the nonprofit U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, 1 in 5 American jobs are tied to international trade. Our embassies are advocates for U.S. business overseas, and the business community knows this well. Just this past summer, more than 50 leading U.S. businesses wrote to Congress in support of a strong International Affairs Budget.

George C. Marshall knew the importance of economic security when he and Harry Truman asked an initially reluctant Congress to help rebuild Europe after World War II. At the time, Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) argued that the plan's benefits were outweighed by the taxes and inflation it could inflict; Henry Wallace characterized it as a subsidy program. But the February 1948 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia served as a wake-up call for Congress, and today the benefits of the Marshall Plan are known to Europe, the U.S. and the world.

We need 535 George Marshalls supporting the International Affairs Budget in the Congress and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our diplomats in the field. Not only because we can afford to, but because we cannot afford to wait for another wake-up call and then pay for its consequences.

Petrihos served for 20 years in senior positions at the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community; he is a vice president at The Cohen Group, an international business consultancy in Washington, D.C.


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