Knight-Ridder Newspapers

A Costly Budget Cut: Doing Nation-building on the Cheap

In its sudden and reckless zeal for budget-cutting, the Republican-controlled Congress is doing President Bush and the nation multiple disservices. Threatening to slash assistance to the most impoverished Americans and forcing Mr. Bush once again to break his public promises to deliver on his Millennium Challenge Account for developing countries are just the beginning.

Another little-noticed casualty with big implications is the complete elimination in the Foreign Operations bill of yet another presidential initiative—the State Department's $100 million Conflict Response Fund.

This relatively small fund represents crucial support for the newly-established Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS).

The Bush administration is loath to admit mistakes, especially when it comes to Iraq. But it came as close as it ever does last year, when it created CRS. Originally proposed by Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), CRS was to be the hub for U.S. government efforts to stabilize war-torn societies and rebuild nations.

These are the very tasks that the Bush Administration came to office disdaining, but due to September 11, President Bush recognized in his 2002 National Security Strategy that "the United States today is threatened less by conquering states than we are by weak and failing ones."

Nonetheless, it was only after the problems in Iraq laid bare the cost of neglecting to plan for post-war periods that the administration fully embraced the missions of conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction.

This new office is also an acknowledgement that Pentagon-led nation-building has significant limitations and that we must have a rapidly-deployable civilian capacity to help revive failed states. The Bush administration now understands that effective civilian efforts can sometimes forestall the need for U.S. military involvement or, if U.S. troops are required, shorten the duration of their stay. If CRS allows just one U.S. Army division to withdraw even one month earlier from Iraq or another war-torn country, we will save $1.2 billion—12 times the cost of CRS.

In every post-conflict situation there is a short window of opportunity—a "golden hour"—when outside actors can potentially shape a foreign country's trajectory. As the administration explained in its FY06 budget request, the Conflict Response Fund is required "to support rapid field deployments essential to creating positive dynamics on the ground." These modest funds—just one quarter of 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget—can give our government the civilian capacity it needs to act quickly and efficiently to consolidate progress or avert disaster. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted in May, "very often, between budget cycles, we have to borrow money from accounts and then try to pay it back because things happen that we did not expect. I can give you many examples: Liberia, Haiti; positive examples like Ukraine. And we want to be able to be more responsive to those kinds of emergency situations."

Members of Congress instinctively resent flexible contingency funds, seeing them as infringements on Congress' power of the purse. They would rather force our presidents to come back to Congress after a foreign crisis to seek emergency supplemental funds. This approach is slow, uncertain and self-defeating. It precludes effective preventive action and forces the executive branch to be reactive rather than pro-active in the face of unforeseen contingences—such as a newly democratic government, a civil conflict, a peace agreement, or the overthrow of a dictator. Consequently, the ultimate cost to U.S. taxpayers will almost certainly be greater, the challenge more complex, and U.S. leverage more limited.

How many times must we pay to learn this costly lesson before Congress puts prudence above bureaucratic prerogative and the national interest above largely symbolic budget cuts? Mr. Bush needs to lead his party in Congress and demand restoration of crucial elements of the State Department budget that he and his Secretary of State have championed.

Susan E. Rice is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and served as Assistant Secretary of State from 1997-2001.

Stewart Patrick is a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Development.