NEW YORK – There is a tragic inconsistency in US President Donald Trump's response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of sarin gas against his country's people. Trump said that he was moved to act by images of innocent children in Idlib province who had been killed by the deadly nerve agent. Yet Trump's administration stands behind a proposed budget that will cause even greater harm to people in Idlib and around the world.
For starters, Trump wants to slash overall funding to the United Nations – a move that would undermine the entire global humanitarian-aid system. Last year, the US contributed about $10 billion to UN efforts that support refugees, feed the poor, protect human rights, vaccinate children, and uphold peace. Trump not only wants to cut that spending by nearly 30%; he also plans to gut or even eliminate US government programs that help prevent starvation and provide essential services in Idlib and elsewhere.
Even seeming minor cuts can have an outsize impact. For example, the State Department is scrapping Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance, a small but crucial fund that has been deployed in Idlib to provide emergency food aid to Syrians driven from their homes by Assad's army. In the past, the fund has quelled unforeseen crises in South Sudan, Mali, and Côte d'Ivoire, and other countries.
Furthermore, Trump wants steep cuts to the US Agency for International Development's Food for Peace program, which has helped to feed three billion people in 150 countries since President Dwight D. Eisenhower created it in 1954, and to eliminate the US Department of Agriculture's McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program. He also wants a one-third cut in funding to UNICEF, which provides clean water for children. And he seeks to reduce the United States' $2 billion contribution to the World Food Program.
Such cuts could hardly come at a worse time. The UN has declared a famine for the first time since 2011, as 20 million people face starvation in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. UNICEF estimates that almost 1.4 million children are already at imminent risk of death from severe acute malnutrition, and urges concerted action to save them.
Moreover, many fragile states are at risk of becoming failed ones, exacerbating the ongoing refugee crisis. As the new state of South Sudan has gradually collapsed into starvation and chaos, more than 600,000 people have fled into Uganda alone. Globally, 65 million people have been forced from their homes in recent years; 23 million of them are international refugees.
Yet Trump is also set to undermine already-strained refugee programs. The UN Refugee Agency receives $1.5 billion of its $4 billion budget from the US. Trump wants to slash its contribution by more than $500 million. As if that were not enough, Trump has signed executive orders that could reduce US refugee admissions by more than half, to just 50,000 this fiscal year.
It is against this background that Trump expressed his horror at the recent chemical attack in Syria. Of course, Trump is right to be horrified by the situation in Syria. Nearly a half-million people have died there since 2011. The number of Syrian refugees outside the country topped five million last week. This has destabilized neighboring countries, where nearly four million refugees now reside, as well as the European Union, which has received most of the rest.
But military action alone will do little to solve Syria's problems. Even the generals on whom Trump relies say that his budget cuts are folly. "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately," Defense Secretary General John Mattis said in February. That same month, more than 120 retired generals signed a letter to Trump arguing that funding the State Department and the USAID is "critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way."
Congress should reject Trump's budget proposal unanimously. But it probably won't. In the House of Representatives, the Republican majority is hopelessly divided. Fiscal conservatives prefer a balanced budget to international aid, and the far-right Freedom Caucus wants to limit the scope of government every way it can.
In the Senate, a majority seems to understand the recklessness of the Trump administration's approach. "America being a force is a lot more than building up the Defense Department," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Diplomacy is important, extremely important, and I don't think these reductions at the State Department are appropriate, because many times diplomacy is a lot more effective – and certainly cheaper – than military engagement." But, despite such strong words, no concerted opposition to the proposed budget cuts has emerged in the Senate.
Preparing a budget is both challenging and important. But the arcane details of that process must not be allowed to obscure the reality that the world is facing a serious humanitarian crisis. The US has a long tradition of providing relief to populations worldwide. To break with that tradition – or, worse, to play an active role in creating a humanitarian crisis – would amount to a repudiation of the values America claims to uphold. Yet that is the path that the Trump administration seems set to take.
Gregory A. Maniatis is a senior European policy fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017
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