Shutdown is terrible for U.S. interests abroad

And why Americans should care

By Miriam Berger
October 4, 2013 1:15AM (UTC)
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The shutdown's stakes are high, with federal workers and the poor hit the hardest. But the ramifications are rippling way beyond the Beltway — indeed across oceans and continents -- to countries where American humanitarian and military aid faces an uncertain future.

Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper called the shutdown a “dream scenario” for foreign governments to recruit spies now that the U.S. is not hiring. He even went so far as to say that he cannot “guarantee” the safety of the U.S. and is “very concerned about the jeopardy to the country.” The shutdown is also jeopardizin the security and work of American diplomats and aid workers.


The U.S. Agency for International Development is able to continue to funds its programs in the short term. However, the New York Times reported:

U.S.A.I.D. did not respond to a request for comment, but in its guidance memo on the government shutdown, top managers at the agency said it would continue as many operations as possible. Most of the aid agencies have multiyear appropriations or financing that is not tied to a fiscal year.

The agency said it continued to honor contracts and grants made before the shutdown. Previously scheduled travel will be honored, but not new travel, the agency said. New travel can be approved, but only in cases involving human safety, like providing food, medicine or other services to refugees.

The longer the shutdown continues, the more strapped these programs — and the peoples they benefit — become. Several government agencies that provide humanitarian services have already been shut, according to the Inter Press Service:

Internationally, the U.S. government will not be able to make any new contributions to agencies that deliver food aid and other services to poor and hungry people around the world, nor respond to new humanitarian emergencies. Over time, hungry people relying on U.S. aid will not receive food, and children will not receive inoculations against disease,” Rev. John L. McCullough, the president of Church World Service, an anti-poverty campaigner, said during a press call Monday.

For decades Democrats and Republican alike have agreed on the vital importance of robust humanitarian and development assistance. But the myopia of some [lawmakers] and their unwillingness to compromise has eroded this consensus, literally taking away food from the mouths of hungry children.

Other closed programs include the Millennial Aid Project, an independent U.S. Aid agency fighting global poverty, and the U.S. Trade and Development Project.


American politicians from antiwar liberals to isolationist conservatives have long decried American outlays abroad. And they may, in a way, have their wish. According to the State Department, a prolonged shutdown could delay military assistance to American allies, including Israel.

The State Department’s ability to provide military assistance to Israel and other allies in the time frame that is expected and customary could be hindered, depending on the length of the shutdown,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told a news briefing.

What to do about military aid to Egypt — which has been put on hold as diplomats decide whether it’s in American interests to say the recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsi was a military coup or not — is also now off the table.

While the nitty-gritty of U.S. foreign aid programs and policies can be confusing, the larger message these kinds of cuts send is pretty clear. As Micah Zenko for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) wrote:


Why does Washington claim that demonstrating resolve in the world requires intermittently using military force, but not funding the federal government on time? For those who claimed that attacking Syria with cruise missiles was required to maintain U.S. credibility in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader, doesn’t Capitol Hill’s behavior over the past week do more to demonstrate America’s incompetence? If the foundations of functioning governance are impossible at home, shouldn’t U.S. allies question America’s commitments to their security thousands of miles away? Finally, given that many foreign policy tasks require congressional oversight or approval, why should U.S. citizens have any faith in their elected officials’ ability to evaluate controversial programs, such as drone strikes, Guantanamo trials, or National Security Agency surveillance, since they cannot pass a budget?

The federal shutdown also endangers the country's credibility in the global market. Economists worry that the repeated fighting in Congress over the debit limit may push finance ministers across Europe and Asia to second-guess the dollar’s pedestal as the preferred global reserve currency. John Norris argues in Foreign Policy:

When exactly did the party of Nelson Rockefeller and Milton Friedman take a collective decision that destroying the dollar was good for America's economic prospects and national security? And, why would any party choose to inflict such willful damage on America's hard-won global economic brand?

Every American diplomat and aid worker now faces a heavier and heavier lift as they try to promote democracy abroad. Tyrants will simply shake their heads at American efforts to promote open government, pointing out that our system can't even manage to keep the doors open or stave off spiraling economic uncertainty.

Seeking global context, Slate took a more Onion-esqe route, trying to capture the U.S.’ drama in the “tone and trope” the American media stereotypically uses to describe events in other countries:


While the country’s most recent elections were generally considered to be free and fair (despite threats against international observers), the current crisis has raised questions in the international community about the regime’s ability to govern this complex nation of 300 million people, not to mention its vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Americans themselves are starting to ask difficult questions as well.

As this correspondent’s cab driver put it, while driving down the poorly maintained roads that lead from the airport, “Do these guys have any idea what they’re doing to the country?

Miriam Berger

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Egypt Federal Shutdown Foreign Aid Furlough Israel Syria