Obama Doubled Nation-Building Budget

On November 4, 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama said, “Change has come to America.” That change is most evident today in voters’ opinion of the benefits of United States world involvement. The newest Wall Street Journal/NBC surveys “portray a public weary of foreign entanglements.” Obama demanded an investigation of the Bush administration’s inappropriate use of the defense budget’s “foreign economic aid” for “nation-building.” But over the last five-and-a-half years, the Obama administration has maximized foreign entanglements by more than doubling defense nation-building spending from $24.3 billion to $51.3 billion.

Candidate Obama, cautioning attendees of an Emily's List meeting in May 2006, stated, “When George Bush said that he didn't believe in nation-building, I didn't know that he was talking about this nation.” Obama railed against spending on Iraq at the expense of rebuilding the homeland. He challenged his Washington, D.C., audience to dream a bigger dream.

In the Democrat presidential primary, both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton savaged the Bush administration’s record in Iraq and repudiated the concept of nation-building, that U.S. security interests demand an active program to shore up governments and “build capacity” in failed or failing states around the world. 

After the Democrats took control of the House and Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections, they directed the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to conduct a 2008 investigation of the Bush administration’s nation-building. The investigation focused on the inappropriateness of the Bush administration’s 2005 DOD Directive 3000.05 that identified nation-building as key to the success of “stability operations” in nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

CRS 93 page report titled “The Department of Defense Role in Foreign Aid Assistance: Background, Major Issues, and Options for Congress,” was not published until December 2008. But research interviews and document requests in the Washington, D.C., area made the Republicans’ justification for using the defense budget for nation-building a key foreign policy issue for Democrat Barack Obama to attack Republican John McCain. 

The report’s introduction showcased what Democrats called a smoking gun memo: “Critics point to a number of problems with an expanded DOD role in many activities." Indeed, a key DOD document acknowledges that state-building tasks may be “best performed by indigenous, foreign, or U.S. civilian professionals.”

The use of the defense budget for “foreign economic aid” was originally a product of the Cold War. Spending in this sector has never been transparent, but it does include international development and humanitarian assistance, conduct of foreign affairs, and foreign information and exchange. 

Although the budget was originally supposed to pay for economic support for Asian, South and Central American, and European countries, it was always to build military capacity for “civic actions” in nations threatened by communism. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the budget funded the School of the Americas (SOA) that taught over 64,000 Latin American soldiers anti-communist counterinsurgency, psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. 

Members of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, like Obama, still refer to the SOA as “School of Assassins.” They claim graduates used their skills to wage a war against their own people, including educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. The SOA is blamed for encouraging rape, assassination, disappearance, massacre, and forced refugee status in the name of nation-building for tens of thousands of Latin Americans. 

The SOA’s most infamous 1970s graduates include the Argentine generals who carried out the “Dirty War” of state terrorism against leftist political dissidents and the Reagan administration’s “Contras” who waged a counter-revolutionary war against the Nicaraguan Marxist Sandinista government funded by illegal Iranian gun-running.

According to American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, even before Barack Obama was picking up his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he was already using the defense budget to dispatch trainers to foment Middle East democracy movements that became known as the Arab Spring. These groups included the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the National Democratic Institute, and the Freedom House nonprofit human rights organizations based in Washington, D.C.

The first Obama budget for FY 2010 cranked up defense foreign economic aid by 63%, from $24.3 to $40.2 billion. Despite subsequent across-the-board budget cuts and the sequester, defense foreign economic aid rose in each of Obama’s five budgets. At the current $51.3 billion, the budget is 108% higher than the last Bush budget.

In his 2012 State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would “take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.” But his budget that year cut transportation, welfare, and general government spending, while making no increase in education. Despite spending austerity, his defense foreign economic aid budget rose by $3.1 billion. 

Conservatives have never been fans of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives. They blame the President for abandoning allies in Egypt and Israel, encouraging Arab Spring revolutions, losing Iraq and Afghanistan to al-Qaeda, gun-running in Syria, and restarting the Cold War in the Ukraine. 

But this weekend, the uber-liberal Daily Kos described the opinion pages of The New York Times as forming a “circular firing squad on Obama's foreign policy, or alleged lack thereof.” The Times stated that there is powerful criticism from Democrats, liberals, and centrists, who fault Mr. Obama’s handling of Syria and Ukraine. The usually reliably liberal Times acknowledged that Obama’s left-leaning critics may be inconsistent in offering cogent alternatives, “but the perception — of weakness, dithering, inaction, there are many names for it — has indisputably had a negative effect on Mr. Obama’s global standing.”

Since Barack Obama has been president, the percentage of Americans “agreeing that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has risen by 10 percentage points to a first-time majority, an all-time high of 53%. President Obama more than doubled spending on his nation-building. But liberals and conservatives now agree that rather than nation-building, President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives have resulted in a string of debilitating foreign entanglements.

The author welcomes feedback and will respond to comments by readers.


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