Senate panel rebuffs Trump administration ‘doctrine of retreat’

Patrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had a leading role in crafting the spending package for foreign policy and State Department initiatives. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate panel issued a stinging critique of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach, accusing the administration of adopting an “apparent doctrine of retreat.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee last week unanimously approved a $51.2 billion spending package for foreign policy and State Department initiatives that is similar to last year’s budget.

The status quo, in this case, is the news: The Trump administration’s budget proposal was about $11 billion less and would have made dramatic cuts to diplomatic programs and staff.

In the bill report, released Friday, the GOP-led committee noted that the president’s budget proposal said the spending package would send “a clear message to the world — a message of American strength and resolve.”

“This message is not reflected in the Internal Affairs budget request,” the report states.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took the lead on crafting the budget. Graham heads the subcommittee responsible for that bill, and Leahy, who has long worked on this issue, is the ranking member.

“The lessons-learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad,” the report states. “Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development.”

“The administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat, which also includes distancing the United States from collective and multilateral dispute resolution frameworks, serves only to weaken America’s standing in the world,” the report continues.

The Senate committee’s sharp diversion from the administration’s foreign policy budget proposal earned headlines and praise, including from the New York Times editorial board on Wednesday.

Leahy said in an interview Tuesday that the Trump administration’s budget proposal would force the closure of embassies and cut the State Department personnel who do “unglamorous but daily negotiations.”

While the Trump administration has emphasized investments in military programs, Leahy argued that reducing funding for so-called soft-power diplomatic programs makes a dent in the United States’ foreign clout.

“It is a retreat. It isn’t making us stronger,” Leahy said. “A number of countries are now starting to ignore us.”

Leahy argued that fully funding diplomatic programs are key to reducing child poverty in other countries and to containing disease outbreaks, like ebola.

“You don’t go to a country and say, ‘Hey, our military says stop diseases coming to the United States,’” Leahy said.

Leahy’s longtime aide on the State Department budget, Tim Rieser, said there was a lack of explanation from the administration explaining a proposal to reduce the department’s staff by 2,300, or what the impact of such a cut would be.

Graham has also been very critical of the administration’s proposals on cuts to the State Department and Foreign Operations budget.

When the full Appropriations panel passed the bill last week, Graham said he has not gotten answers to questions about the details of the administration’s proposed cuts.

“I’m all for reform, but quite frankly we’ve got nothing back,” Graham said. “I have no idea what it’s going to look like, so we went ahead and funded personnel at the 2016 level. And if he can show me we can do more with less, I’m open-minded.”

He also emphasized the importance of investing in diplomacy.

“You can’t defend America without allies,” Graham said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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