The Trump administration is hosting a meeting today of the 68 countries battling ISIS to take stock of the current campaign and plan their next moves. It should be a big moment for President Trump, who won the White House after vowing to eradicate the group.
The problem is that Trump’s proposal to slash the State Department and USAID budget by 36 percent — from $58.8 billion to $37.6 billion — will make the fight much harder. Trump will have to choose between a desire to dramatically slash spending on diplomacy and foreign aid and his promise to defeat ISIS. He can’t do both.
The hardest part of destroying ISIS’s self-declared “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria isn't reconquering actual territory. It’s been a bloody and slow fight, but Iraqi and Kurdish forces — backed by US airpower and troops — are gradually retaking both small towns and major cities like Mosul.
But as we learned from our initial foray into Iraq into 2003 — and have been learning over and over again ever since — the bigger problem is how to secure and govern that territory afterward and prevent ISIS from simply coming back again. After all, ISIS itself is simply version 2.0 of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was initially nearly defeated in 2007 and 2008, but because the underlying political problems were never addressed, the conditions were set for AQI to return as ISIS.
This is where the massive budget cuts come in. After retaking territory from ISIS, immediate humanitarian aid to war-ravaged areas, combined with long-term investments in providing basic government services (things like picking up the trash) and economic development, will be necessary.
These are all things that the State Department and USAID — not the US military — do. Their meager budgets already mean they often cannot keep up with the military. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration based its military strategy in Afghanistan on the assumption that a “civilian surge” would follow the military one to keep captured areas stable.
But the State Department and USAID were unable to deliver because of a lack of money and staff, which has continued to hobble efforts in Afghanistan. Slashing those budgets even further would essentially cripple the US’s ability to help reconstruct the areas taken back from ISIS and try to bring about some modicum of stability there.
Though $20 billion may seem like a lot of money, it’s far less expensive than having to send the US military back into Iraq for a third time, when ISIS 2.0 rises a few years from now.
The State Department and USAID are vital to helping rebuild Iraq
State and USAID will be needed to help with all kinds of critical programs. First and foremost will be working with international humanitarian organizations to make sure civilians caught up and displaced by the fighting get food, water, and shelter. There will have to be major efforts to reconstruct cities and villages destroyed by the conflict so that the local population that fled can return.
And finally, there are programs designed to help Iraqis set up things like city councils that can help manage local services and make Iraqis feel as though they are being represented. All of these programs are critical to reducing the feeling of political alienation in ISIS-held territory that gave ISIS the opportunity to thrive in the first place.
For Iraq to be stable over the long term, it also needs a political arrangement at the national level that all sides — Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds — can live with. This was missing in Iraq after US-led forces defeated AQI in 2007 and 2008; instead, Iraqis got a highly sectarian Shia-led government that stripped Sunnis of all political power and created the political conditions for the rise of ISIS.
For the US to be able to help the Iraqis work out that kind of political arrangement, it needs well-trained, well-equipped diplomats who have the regional, linguistic, and functional expertise to deal with these complex negotiations. And you don’t get those kind of well-trained, well-equipped diplomats by gutting the State Department’s budget.
Morale at the department is already at historic lows right now. The Trump administration has dramatically reduced its importance and cut the bureaucracy out of foreign policy decision-making. The top career leadership has been decimated by a series of firings of senior-level career officials, with no plans for replacing them.
If that trajectory doesn’t change, a brain drain at the State Department is likely to follow.
But the proposed cuts go beyond just the State Department
Trump has also proposed cutting the US contribution to the United Nations. Though the precise numbers are not yet clear, reports suggest potential slashes of more than 50 percent for humanitarian and refugee programs. This would be a tremendous blow to these agencies, given that the United States often funds 25 to 40 percent of their budgets.
If the US cuts spending on things like the World Food Program or UNICEF, which many of our partners in the anti-ISIS coalition care deeply about, some of those countries will almost certainly have to spend more to fill in those gaps as best they can.
That extra money will come, at least in part, from their budgets for the fight against ISIS. Because while many of our partners care deeply about destroying ISIS, they do not all necessarily see it as the top priority.
According to UN estimates, there are 20 million people in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia facing starvation. If the United States dramatically cuts support for programs addressing these crises, many of our European partners will almost certainly shift funds currently slotted for aid in Iraq and Syria to Africa instead.
Trump has also floated the idea of making the rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates fund Iraq’s reconstruction. But oil prices have been at sustained low levels for a number of years now, and these countries don’t actually have nearly as much extra money as they used to.
On top of that, ISIS is not their top priority. They are much more invested in the conflict in Yemen and in countering Iran’s steadily growing influence throughout the Middle East. While they will certainly contribute to international efforts, they will not become the financial substitute for the United States or other players that move funds elsewhere.
There’s also the question of leadership
The United States is able to harness a global 68-country coalition not only because this is a high-priority issue but because America’s unique leadership role in the world gives it leverage to bring various players together and push them to pursue a coordinated approach.
But if America pulls its funding for this type of work while expecting others to shoulder most of the financial burden, what reason would those countries have to defer to the United States and allow it to coordinate these efforts?
And since no other country has the capacity to bring everyone else in line and make them listen, the result would be more redundancy and inefficiency as partners pursue independent projects that are not coordinated into one holistic approach, which will then leave the American military mission vulnerable.
If we are moving to an “America First” foreign policy where the United States stops taking into account others’ priorities and invests narrowly in its own immediate interests, others will not simply blindly follow. Instead they will do the same, investing narrowly in their own priorities.
In Iraq, this will likely mean the failure of post-ISIS efforts, and a few years from now the US military will be back again fighting the same fight in the Middle East.
Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.