He’s the first former oil executive to run Foggy Bottom, but Rex W. Tillerson also is proving to be an unconventional Cabinet pick in another way — as the guy who doesn’t mind having his department’s budget slashed.
The new secretary of state sent shock waves through the State Department’s back hallways last week by throwing his support behind President Trump’s first fiscal blueprint, which reserves its deepest cuts for America’s diplomatic and foreign aid programs.
While conservative hard-liners say it’s about time for State to rein in spending on items such as climate change and gay rights, many Republicans, including highly influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill, are outraged at the proposed 28 percent slash to the department’s budget.
Critics wasted little time lambasting Mr. Tillerson’s surprise assertion Thursday that State’s current funding levels are “simply not sustainable,” setting the stage for what will be a heated debate over the value of diplomacy and other “soft power” tools that Mr. Trump and his supporters repeatedly have derided.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has questioned the wisdom of slashing State and U.S. Agency for International Development programs in the Middle East and other places when the military battle against the Islamic State is finally bearing fruit.
“I am very concerned that deep cuts to our diplomacy will hurt efforts to combat terrorism [and] distribute critical humanitarian aid,” Mr. Royce said. “Especially when the U.S. is fighting ISIS and millions are at risk of starvation around the world.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, was less combative. He expressed optimism that lawmakers “can strike an appropriate balance” with the administration that “recognizes the critical role of diplomacy.”
It remains to be seen how the debate will play out.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that Mr. Trump’s proposal does not reduce U.S. assistance to Israel but puts money for humanitarian programs elsewhere in the Middle East, including Jordan and Egypt, under review.
The proposal calls for a combined State and USAID budget of $25.6 billion for fiscal 2018, about $10 billion less than this year. It calls for a 20 percent cut to “overseas contingency operations” funding for diplomatic and humanitarian operations in war zones such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Administration officials say the biggest cuts will target USAID’s Global Climate Change Initiative, State’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance operations and overall funding for United Nations programs.
“This is about looking at ways that we can find greater efficiencies,” said Mr. Toner. “Having a leader like Secretary Tillerson, somebody who comes out of the business world, who is used to running a profit-making corporation [and] is very good at finding those efficiencies.”
Mr. Tillerson told the State Department’s 75,000 employees in an email that the proposed cuts represent “an unmistakable restatement of the needs the country faces and the priorities we must establish.”
The secretary of state added to that message Thursday during a press conference in Tokyo, where he framed the spending reductions as a necessary correction to a “historically high” budget.
“Clearly, the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking, particularly in this past year, is simply not sustainable,” Mr. Tillerson said. “As time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.”
Washington will reduce spending, he added, while spurring other countries and sources to contribute to development aid and disaster assistance.
Brett D. Schaefer, a Heritage Foundation researcher focused on foreign policy, said the proposed cuts represent “a return to focusing taxpayer dollars on the business of true statecraft and away from funding global pet projects championed by the Obama administration.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said he is not sure the proposed cuts will be significant enough to eliminate what he described as ideologically misguided foreign policy spending of the Obama years.
“As I understand it, they had teams all over the world that were paid lavish amounts of money, and they weren’t promoting America; they were promoting the LGBT agenda,” Mr. Gohmert told reporters Thursday.
“I’m not sure 28 percent is enough to cut what’s not promoting the best interest of the United States,” he said. “We went with teams into African countries and said, ‘We’ll help you with Boko Haram if you change your law to allow same-sex marriage and abortion.’”
‘You’re never going to win the war’
Critics pointed out that State has only one special envoy promoting LGBT rights — a position President Obama created with the stated mission of helping other nations build capacity toward responding to violence against LGBTI people around the world.
Others said the biggest issue has nothing to do with climate change or gay rights but potential damage to U.S.-backed humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What jumps out at me is the dramatic cut in overseas contingency operations,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Mr. Obama. “The dilemma here is that you win the war and lose the peace.”
“I think Secretary Tillerson misunderstands that,” Mr. Crowley told The Washington Times. “What he hinted at in his comments in Japan was that when the wars end, so does the State Department’s responsibility, where actually the opposite is the case.
“As we retake territory from the Islamic State, how will that territory be governed? Can you restart an economy? Can you rebuild infrastructure? In effect, as the military role is reduced, the State role is intensified, and that requires resources,” Mr. Crowley said. “There’s a strategic disconnect here, and it doesn’t appear that the president or the secretary of state gets it.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, touched on that point last month when news first broke that the White House was considering massive State Department cuts.
“When you take soft power off the table, you’re never going to win the war,” Mr. Graham told NBC News. “It shows a lack of understanding of what it takes to win.”
Democrats are outraged. “The president’s budget reveals a White House that lacks a basic understanding of how to conduct smart foreign policy,” said Rep. Theodore E. Deutch of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
“Diplomacy and development often prevent conflicts before they even begin,” Mr. Deutch said.
Mr. Royce, meanwhile, said he is satisfied that the proposed budget “prioritizes funding for several key programs, including embassy security and military assistance to Israel.”
“But it is unclear how the administration would apply cuts elsewhere,” he said in a statement. “Does this mean vital programs to counter drug and human trafficking will face even steeper cuts? What about military assistance to other important allies, including Jordan?
“We need a strong reform budget that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of foreign assistance,” Mr. Royce said. “We can achieve this without undermining vital U.S. economic and national security interests.”