Last week, between tweeting that the DNC election was rigged and accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping his phones, President Donald Trump announced his plans for his budget proposal to Congress for Fiscal Year 2018; and, believe it or not, it might have been the craziest thing he did all week.
We don’t know all of the specifics of Trump’s plan yet, but we know he wants to increase the military’s budget by $54 billion—an amount equal to the total annual defense budget of the United Kingdom, who ranks fifth in the world in military spending. The U.S. currently spends just under $600 billion a year on defense.
He plans to pay for this increase through a variety of cuts, aimed in particular at foreign assistance programs. The White House Office of Management and Budget director, Mike Mulvaney, told reporters that cuts in foreign assistance would be “dramatic.” White House officials estimated $14 billion cuts to the State Department, which provides the majority of funding for these foreign aid programs. It seems like the administration is doing budget math using some commonly held misconceptions about U.S. spending when it comes to foreign assistance.
As Americans, we vastly overestimate our annual spending on foreign aid. A 2015 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that when asked to estimate what percentage of our budget is spent on assistance abroad, Americans’ average answer was 26 percent. Accordingly, 56 percent said that we spend too much money of foreign assistance. But when respondents were told that foreign aid actually only makes up around one percent of the annual budget, that number dropped to 28 percent. So, someone should probably tell Trump.
As one percent of the annual budget, foreign assistance costs U.S. taxpayers $42.4 billion a year—about $12 billion less than Trump’s proposed military budget increase. Of that, $25.6 billion is earmarked for helping other nations economically and $16.8 billion goes to foreign militaries.
So where would these $14 billion in cuts come from? The $16.8 billion to foreign militaries is unlikely to go anywhere. That money is concentrated in the Middle East, either in active war zones, Egypt, or Israel. $5.11 billion is spent on all nations with active fights against resurgent terrorist organizations: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. $3.1 billion goes to Israel, a sum that can only go up as Trump seeks a closer relationship with the nation. And $1.3 billion goes to Egypt, money that we have to pay them as a condition of the Camp David Accords of 1978. The other $7.3 billion is spread across other nations in need of military help, including to Mexico and Colombia for their drug wars, and a variety of European and African states.
The $14 billion in cuts are much more likely to come out of the $25.6 billion spent on economic development. This is a broad category and includes money spent on disaster relief, disease prevention and treatment, the Peace Corps, and bilateral assistance to governments in need. This money is much more spread out regionally, though seven of the top 10 countries receiving aid are in Africa and the other three are in the Middle East.
There is an old adage which says, “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” This essentially boils down to, don’t hurt yourself in the process of trying to improve. President Trump’s cuts to foreign aid do just that. Cutting money from foreign aid and reallocating it into the military will damage the world, making it and the United States, less safe. Foreign assistance programs work to reduce disease, poverty, hunger, and instability. By cutting these programs, more people will be forced into hopeless life situations: conditions that breed extremism.
Senator Marco Rubio emphasized this point well in a speech on the Senate floor. “I promise you, it’s going to be a lot harder to recruit someone to anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism if the United States of America was the reason why they are even alive today,” he said.
Many high-ranking military officers have echoed this sentiment. After the budget proposal was announced, 120 three and four star generals signed a letter to the Trump administration imploring them to reconsider their planned cuts to foreign assistance programs. “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,” they wrote. Those closest to the battle against extremism understand that foreign aid and strong civilian partnerships are a vital piece of the fight: a telling rebuke of Trump’s plan. If Trump truly wants to ensure Americans’ safety, he should heed their advice.
Ultimately, inciting fear—not protecting our homeland—is the administration’s goal. Fear is what allows them to build walls and ban refugees. By increasing spending on the military, they are sending Americans a clear message—be afraid; be very afraid.
Our job, put simply, is to not give into this fear. Our job is to remember that the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won with books, not bombs, and that no matter how many terrorists we kill, more will pop up in their place until we deal with poverty, lack of education, and hopelessness in these communities.
Trump’s plan will require congressional approval, and many political analysts believe it won’t pass. But this battle between rationality and fear, compassion and hate, exemplified by this ludicrous budget proposal, will continue to define American politics for years to come. In the long run, forging lasting peace in the Middle East and elsewhere will only be possible if rationality and compassion win.