This is the fifth entry in a series examining actions during the first 100 days of the new Trump administration and their possible implications on the arms trade, security assistance and weapons use in the future.
Trump’s budget blueprint proposes to cut funding for the State Department and the Agency for International Development (AID) by 28%. This steep reduction is being imposed on an agency that is already underfunded, receiving just one-twelfth of the roughly $600 billion per year provided to the Pentagon. A few years ago, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put this in perspective when he noted that it takes more personnel to operate one aircraft carrier task force than there are trained diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Trump’s downgrading of diplomacy does not bode well for the ability of the United States to prevent or rein in conflicts, and may actually lead to more, and longer, U.S. military interventions. Donald Trump’s own secretary of defense, James Mattis, made this very point when he was the head of the U.S. Central Command, asserting in a Congressional hearing that if the State Department budget is cut, “I’m going to need more ammunition.”
With diminished diplomatic tools available, the Trump administration is liable to engage in the kind of unfocused military bluster we saw in its one-off cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians and its threat of preemptive military action against North Korea if it tested a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, the administration is increasing the U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria, stepping up U.S. involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen, and talking about increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan – all the while encouraging U.S. military leaders to “take the gloves off” by easing the criteria for selecting bombing targets, with a noticeable uptick in civilian casualties as a result. Absent a diplomatic strategy and the personnel to craft one, U.S. involvement in these wars is likely to escalate, with increasingly negative consequences for the United States and its allies.
Another set of policy instruments that the Trump administration is likely to lean on in the absence of a robust diplomatic corps is the wide array of arms and training programs funded and operated by the Pentagon. These programs have grown dramatically since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. According to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor, Pentagon-funded assistance grew from $1 billion in 2002 to $10.8 billion in 2015. These funds are spread across dozens of separate initiatives that support arming and training the militaries of over 100 countries. There have been notable failures, like the lavishing of hundreds of millions in aid on the Saleh regime in Yemen under the Pentagon’s 1206 program, assistance that ended up placing arms in the remnants of the regime’s army that is now fighting along Houthi forces in that nation’s civil war.
The underlying problem is that these programs have never been adequately evaluated to determine if they are effective in meeting U.S. security objectives. As the Congressional Research Service noted in a report on the subject, “the assumption that building foreign security forces will have tangible U.S. national security benefits remains a largely untested proposition.”
It is difficult to track the Pentagon’s aid programs under the best of circumstances, but at the moment there is literally no way to know how they will fare in the fiscal year 2018 budget. Details on how much the Trump administration will spend on Pentagon assistance, and which programs will be favored, awaits the release of the administration’s full budget submission to Congress. But the fact that these arms and training programs could be implemented in the context of a rapidly shrinking diplomatic corps is cause for concern.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.