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Gates: "Congress is part of the problem" in State, USAID shortfalls

UPDATE: Urged by reader email, Stripes Central did a bit of fact checking on the historical personnel numbers for USAID that Defense Secretary Robert Gates cited in a San Francisco speech, and reported in the below blog item. We found some discrepancies. Scroll to bottom for more.

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For years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates – like most defense leaders -- has said over and over that U.S. cannot win the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq with military might alone. He has practically begged for a vastly expanded budget for his diplomatic and humanitarian partners across the Potomac at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, the nation’s foreign aid and assistance arm.

But Gates opened a crack to his true feelings on Thursday, when he said to an audience of Marine Corps veterans in San Francisco, in frustration, “I will tell you, Congress is part of the problem.”

“There has to be a change in attitude [on Capitol Hill] in the recognitions of the critical role that agencies like State and AID play, for them to play the leading role that I think they need to play,” he said.

To illustrate the point, Gates told an audience the same talking point he has repeated for at least a year – that all of the Foreign Service Officers (the U.S. diplomatic corps) in the world would not be enough people to crew a single aircraft carrier. 

But in retelling the chuckle-line, by now it has begun to illustrate the lack of progress Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been able to make on the Hill.

Gates said when he left government in 1993 as CIA director, “[USAID] had been a huge player in our success in the Cold War.”

“When I left the government they had about 16,000 employees – dedicated experts who were deployed, who were accustomed to working in insecure conditions in developing countries, and all the specialties: agronomy, rule of law, education.

But USAID (and sister organization the U.S. Information Agency) was almost dismantled in the 1990s by post-Cold War cuts led by then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican. Helms saw the organization as an unaffordable, unpopular foreign version of welfare.

“When I came back into government in 2006,” Gates said, “[USAID] had 3,000 employees and mainly was a contracting agency.”

“This is a capability we have denied ourselves…but these institutions need to be rebuilt and re-strengthened.” 

With a push to find defense savings wherever possible, the secretary said, "Because of the size of the Defense Department, it is critically important that [State and USAID] receive additional resources."

Meanwhile, he pointed out that Congress continues to nitpick at the foreign affairs budget (known as the 150 Account), while defense budgets pass largely untouched. Gates said he asked for $550 billion in his baseline this year, and that’s what Congress approved (though not necessarily appropriate).

But Clinton asked for roughly $50 billion and the House “whacked,” he said, nearly $5 billion off the top.

While the number of USAID, State and related civilian employees in Afghanistan has tripled to just under 1,000 since the first of the year, Gates said it is simply not enough.

By now, some have to be wondering: If the power trifecta of President Barack Obama in the White House, Clinton at State, and Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen in the Pentagon cannot secure substantial increases for State and USAID from a friendly, Democratically-held Congress….will anyone?

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UPDATE: So, Gates said there were 16,000 USAID employees in 1993 and 3,000 in 2006. 

Stripes Central asked USAID and they said there were 11,400 total employees in 1990; 9,152 in 1995 and almost 8,015 in 2006.

That's not that big a drop and seems to poke a big hole in Gates' complaint that America too deeply cut its post-Cold War foreign aid institutions. Those numbers, a USAID press officer said, include civil service, Foreign Service, Foreign Service nationals, American personnel service contractors, and others, but not “institutional support contractors”.

So why the mismatch?

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell took time out of his vacation to explain: “The 16,000 figure goes back to the Landon Lecture in November 2007, which referred to the number of USAID employees at the height of the Vietnam War. We've used that formulation in a couple of speeches since (though not for a couple of years).

“As for the present -- depends on how you count but as of the time of the [Kansas State University] Landon Lecture the number of full time true full time USAID employees was between 2,000 and 3,000.”

Here is the passage in Gates’ speech: “What is not as well-known, and arguably even more shortsighted, was the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world -- the "soft power," which had been so important throughout the Cold War. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers for a period of time. The United States Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts -- its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 during Vietnam to about 3,000 in the 1990s. And the U.S. Information Agency was abolished as an independent entity, split into pieces, and many of its capabilities folded into a small corner of the State Department.”

Matching apples to oranges is always a touch job, especially inside U.S. government bookkeeping. When Stripes Central asked USAID if those personnel numbers Gates’ cited in San Francisco this month were true, the agency answered us with more questions asking which specific numbers we’d like them to provide. 

“How many people worked for USAID in 1993, in 2006, and today?” we asked.

“Again, I just want to clarify - do you want all employees or just foreign service and civil service?” asked the USAID press officer.

“I want ALL EMPLOYEES,” we replied. (Yes, the Royal “we.”)

And that’s how the sausage is made. It doesn't take away from Gates' larger point - that foreign affairs institutions are much smaller than during their Cold War heights. 

And it doesn't change the question: Will these non-military tools to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq get any more hard currency and support from Congress?