Defense Secretary James Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2017. Photo by: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro / U.S. Department of Defense

U.S. foreign aid came up repeatedly in two defense-related congressional hearings this week, drawing attention to the impact of the White House’s proposed budget cuts in conversations meant to focus on the military.

Five senators at the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on Wednesday sought Defense Secretary James Mattis’s and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford’s comment on the impact of President Donald Trump’s proposed 28 percent cuts to the foreign aid budget.

Mattis and Dunford offered tempered replies. But the exchanges are indicative of how the defense community is emerging as a key voice in the fight to push back against cutting State Department and aid budgets. A number of retired generals have spoken out publicly and met with lawmakers about the damage such reductions could cause to American influence across the globe.

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Mattis is also previously on record in support of maintaining healthy diplomatic spending. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he famously told a March 2013 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, while he was the general in charge of Central Command.

Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, sought to remind Mattis of past support, reading that quote into the record Wednesday as part of his opening remarks at a hearing held primarily to discuss a supplemental budget increase. The Trump administration has proposed adding about $30 billion in defense spending.

“The White House is already proposing extremely reckless cuts to agencies like the State Department for the next year, which would jeopardize our nation's ability to deal with crises without resorting to arms,” Durbin said, adding he wished the president had listened to Mattis’s past testimony.

Pressing questions

Throughout Wednesday’s hearing, senators from both sides of the aisle pressed Mattis and Dunford to describe the security impact of cutting aid and diplomatic budgets.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, argued that cutting programs that address hunger, AIDS and malaria would make the world less stable and asked the generals to describe how a strong economy, as well as robust diplomacy and aid, influence national security.

I want to make certain we've got our diplomats in a position of strength when they negotiate in this increasingly perilous world.

— Defense Secretary James Mattis

Mattis said he was at the hearing to fight for a budget addition to address what he described as a “severe” readiness issue with the military. He added that he has an obligation to ensure that the president, the secretary of state and U.S. diplomats are “always negotiating from a position of strength.”

“We’re keenly aware of the sacrifices made by the American people and the other departments in terms of providing the military budget that we're getting,” Mattis said. “But right now I think I want to make certain we've got our diplomats in a position of strength when they negotiate in this increasingly perilous world.”

Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, asked Mattis to walk him through what the 28 percent cut to the State Department proposed for 2018 would mean to the Department of Defense.

Mattis said he would have to look at the specific programs being cut and “try to translate that into impact on our operations.” He said the Department of Defense works closely with the State Department, and he meets with and speaks to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson regularly to ensure that the two departments are aligned. “It’s absolutely a team effort as we tie diplomacy and military means together,” Mattis said.

In response to a question from Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, Dunford weighed in on the role of the State Department and USAID in curbing ISIS. Baldwin asked whether it would be “strategically wise” to reduce funding and staffing to those agencies.

Dunford outlined nine areas that defense has identified as critical to the strategy for defeating the Islamic State — only two of which are led by the Department of Defense. The other seven are led by other parts of the government, including the State Department.

“I can’t talk to the adequate levels of funding for any other element of the government. What I can say is that in order for us to be successful against ISIS or any of the threats that we face right now, it will be important for us to fully leverage all the capabilities our nation has — diplomatically, economically, and militarily, and now in the 21st century in the information space as well,” Dunford said.

“At the end of the day we are involved in a war of ideas and undermining the credibility of the narrative and threat is going to be critical to our success,” Dunford said in reply to a series of rapidfire questions from Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, who asked if soft power was important in the war on terror.

Mattis responded by saying that America has two main powers — one of intimidation and one of inspiration. “Soft power is largely found in the power of inspiration and it’s part and parcel of how we defeat this enemy,” he said.

Calls to maintain aid budget

Mattis’s and Dunford’s testimony followed discussions at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, in which aid also came up.

Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley testified that the U.S. must have tools in place to help mitigate the risk of violence in flash points around the world. Programs run by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have the potential to quell conflicts before the military is needed, Hadley said. As an example, he pointed to the U.S. Institute of Peace, which was slated for elimination in the budget proposal, but played a role in helping reduce violence in one region in Iraq.

“Those preventive tools avoid our need to use the military instrument down the road when a fragile state becomes a conflict state,” he said. “We underinvest in those at our peril.”

Outside of Congress, a number of retired officers have raised similar concerns and argued that diplomatic and aid efforts have been vital to military success.

These civilian partners need resources to be effective, just like the military — which is why I’m on Capitol Hill today urging our elected officials to ensure the State Department and USAID have the resources they need to be effective partners in our country’s security.

— Retired General George W. Casey, Jr., former chief of staff of the United States Army

“In Iraq, I learned very quickly that military force alone wouldn’t solve the problems that confronted our forces,” said retired General George W. Casey, Jr., former chief of staff of the United States Army, who was the commanding general in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, in a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Several retired military leaders were meeting with legislators to make a similar case, the statement said.

“Today our soldiers need strong civilian partners to sustain the military’s hard-earned gains. These civilian partners need resources to be effective, just like the military — which is why I’m on Capitol Hill today urging our elected officials to ensure the State Department and USAID have the resources they need to be effective partners in our country’s security.”

Last month Casey and a group of about 120 retired military leaders signed a letter to congressional and administration leadership, before the budget cuts were formally released, asking them to ensure that the international affairs budget have enough resources to “keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face.”

The letter argued that military service has taught them that many of the challenges the U.S. faces cannot be solved by the military alone.

“The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way,” the letter reads. “The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism — lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.”

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.