What started as a peaceful Syrian uprising has grown into a global proxy war, with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey opposing the Assad regime, Iran and Russia trying to support it, and everyone randomly fighting the terrorist forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). At the same time, world governments continue to scramble for resources to stem the flow of migrants and provide aid for the victims.
For five years, Syria has gradually collapsed into chaos, with no foreseeable end to the destruction and violence for the Syrian people. The “Cessation of Hostilities” agreement is now simply a paper document with bullet holes in it from both directions.
Estimates of the casualties of the conflict range between 250,000 to nearly half a million. Earlier this year, the State Department rightfully declared that ISIS committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims. As the victims of these atrocities continue to pour out of the Middle East, the very fabric of a unified Europe threatens to unravel.
This much is clear: The crisis certainly should be recognized as a real U.S. national security risk, as well as a dramatic warning for our depleted national budget. Diplomatic, humanitarian and military powers need a coherent long-term plan and a commitment to finish that plan.
Appearing before Congress in a hearing in April, Bono, the lead singer of U2 and founder of the ONE Campaign, a charity heavily involved in assisting victims of the Syrian crisis, said that it was wrong to believe that “this refugee problem is temporary.” Ask any expert in Syrian affairs and they’ll tell you the same thing. And yet, the current budget proposals provide short-term funding solutions for what is inherently a long-term problem.
It is the new budget trend to call everything “emergency” spending, so all existing budget line items can be protected from cuts. In the past week, several senators have already publicly stated that the Zika virus, Syrian refugees and opioid abuse are now national emergencies that require additional funding above the spending caps. While there is no question all three are significant needs, the first need in Congress is to find other areas to reduce spending so we can instead spend on our clear priorities.
Enabled by Congress, the State Department recently funded grants for media coverage of U.S. elections in London, inclusion programs in Macedonia, preservation programs for log cabins in Russia and new construction for Buddhist temples in China. Last year, the State Department found almost a billion dollars “extra” in one account it chose to “re-program” for the Green Climate Fund instead of refugee relief. I could go on and on about similar wasteful and unauthorized spending.
I released a report last fall — “Federal fumbles: 100 ways the government dropped the ball” — that includes many such examples of these wasteful programs. Other members of Congress, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), have also released waste reports that highlight unnecessary spending, both domestic and abroad.
When Congress and the administration allow the budget to contain programs with limited interest to U.S. national security, important relief efforts in Syria are pushed through emergency war spending accounts, such as “overseas contingency operations.” These accounts are not subject to the budgetary caps set in the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011, creating immense uncertainty among our aid agencies, on-the-ground implementers and partner countries because they are not an enduring account in the budget. Important relief efforts to violent crises should be the first thing budgeted in the foreign affairs account, not the last.
When we have long-term foreign policy objectives, we should provide long-term budget solutions to match, rather than take the easy political road of budgeting through emergency spending accounts. Congress should work with the executive branch to prioritize worthy spending programs — like the Syrian relief efforts and response to Zika — and cut the programs that are wasteful, duplicative or simply not as essential.
America is the greatest and most generous country on Earth. We donate more aid to victims of conflicts around the world than any other nation, but we do not have unlimited resources. We should engage world needs based on our national security priorities with a sustainable budget path that doesn’t leave the next generation burdened with an insurmountable pile of debt.
The fact that we have $19 trillion of debt should force us to re-evaluate every cent of foreign spending. Families all across America make tough budget decisions and prioritize spending on what is essential. The federal government must do the same. When an international crisis develops that demands our attention, our first response should be to re-evaluate our priorities, not just borrow more “emergency” spending.