WASHINGTON, Feb 14, 2012 (IPS) – Despite strong pressure to reduce the yawning federal deficit, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is asking Congress for a slight increase in funding for the State Department and foreign aid next year.
The administration is requesting a total of some 56 billion dollars in “international affairs” spending for fiscal year (FY) 2013, which begins Oct. 1, according to the budget proposal presented by the administration Monday.
That total is two percent more – or about 1.3 billion dollars – than Congress approved in a 2012 omnibus appropriations bill, but still four percent less than the FY 2010 international affairs budget, the last year in which Democrats held a majority in both houses of Congress.
More than half the increase from last year will be provided by a 770- million-dollar “Middle East Funding Initiative”, which is designed to give the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) flexibility in responding to new developments in the so-called “Arab Awakening”.
“The notion is we’re in a new world,” Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides told reporters Monday. “…(T)he idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day, in Syria… the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money.”
On the other hand, U.S. aid to Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union will decline under Obama’s proposal. Military and police assistance to Latin American countries – particularly its two biggest beneficiaries, Colombia and Mexico – will also be reduced by roughly 10 percent.
The budget also calls for modest cuts in global health, food aid, and disaster and humanitarian programmes, proposals which drew concern from a number of aid groups.
“We understand this is a difficult fiscal climate, but any further trimming of these core accounts is counterproductive and impedes our efforts to build more self-sufficient populations,” said Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of more than 190 independent U.S. humanitarian and development organisations.
The proposed international affairs budget, which will now be taken up by Congress, represents less than one percent of Obama’s total federal budget request of 3.8 trillion dollars and less than 10 percent of the proposed 614-billion-dollar Pentagon budget – of which nearly 90 billion dollars are earmarked for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under the plan, the defence budget would be reduced by about 32 billion dollars from this year’s level.
Given a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, election-year politics and the lack of a politically potent grassroots constituency willing to lobby for more foreign aid, the administration’s proposed request is unlikely to make it through the Congress intact.
In addition, some specific proposals contained in the budget are likely to provoke considerable controversy.
Under pressure from Congress, the administration is currently holding up delivery of some 1.6 billion dollars in military and economic aid to Egypt, for example, as a result of the military regime’s crackdown against U.S. democracy-promotion activists and indigenous groups that accepted U.S. and other foreign funding. The new budget proposal calls for another 1.3 billion dollars in military aid next year.
Some 2.4 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan – most of it for military and counterinsurgency assistance – could also be vulnerable to cuts or new conditions if accumulating tensions that reached their zenith when U.S. warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers close to the Afghan border last November persist over the coming months.
Similarly, the administration has included 79 million dollars for U.S. dues to UNESCO next year despite the fact that all payments to the Paris-based agency have been frozen since its governing board voted to admit Palestine as a member state.
Nides said Monday that the administration will ask Congress to waive the provisions of two laws enacted some 20 years ago that ban the government from contributing to any U.N. agency that recognises Palestine. Most analysts believe this will be a difficult, if not impossible task, during an election year.
The administration’s earmark for UNESCO nonetheless reflected a strong commitment to the United Nations, multilateral diplomacy, and peacekeeping throughout the budget document.
The administration’s proposal calls for maintaining or increasing U.S. contributions to most multilateral accounts, notably the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for which it is asking nearly 130 million dollars, or a 44 percent increase over this year, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria to which the administration hopes to provide 1.65 billion dollars in 2013, a 57-percent increase over current levels.
It also urges the approval of 250 million dollars for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries, a huge increase over the 12 million dollars approved by Congress this year.
Despite the proposed increase in contributions to the Global Fund, AIDS activists expressed deep disappointment over a proposed 10 percent cut – or more than 500 million dollars – in the nine-year-old bilateral President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told reporters that dramatic reductions over the last several years in the cost of providing treatment for HIV/AIDS had made it possible for Washington to meet its target of putting six million HIV/AIDS victims on life-sustaining anti-retroviral treatment by 2013. Nearly four million are covered by PEPFAR today, he said.
But AIDS activists said they were sceptical that the six-million target could be reached with a 10-percent cut in funding and that the savings realised by the cuts in cost should be reinvested in what is widely considered one of Washington’s most effective aid programmes.
“It’s simply not credible to cut a half billion from the U.S.’s bilateral global AIDS programme and say you’re doing all you can to end AIDS,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of U.S. Advocacy for Health GAP, an anti-AIDS group.
“There’s no need to take money out of AIDS and into Afghanistan,” he added.
Indeed, nearly a quarter of the entire international affairs budget request is earmarked for the so-called “front-line states” – Afghanistan (4.6 billion dollars); Iraq (4.8 billion dollars), where the State Department has taken over from the Pentagon as the chief U.S. presence and is now staffing what is supposed to be the world’s largest U.S. embassy; and Pakistan (2.4 billion dollars).
Most of that money will come from a special account, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) Fund, which some on Capitol Hill have criticised as a State Department “slush fund” that, because of its close relationship to the so-called “Global War on Terror”, has escaped close scrutiny by Congress.
Aside from the three front-line countries, the biggest bilateral recipients of U.S. aid under the proposed budget include Israel at 3.1 billion dollars in military aid and Egypt at 1.6 billion dollars.