Mattis, Tillerson face heat over aid cuts, Russia
President Trump’s top diplomat and Pentagon chief defended the administration’s plan to cut U.S. aid programs, argued for keeping the door open to Russian cooperation and offered a sobering assessment of the Afghan War on Tuesday in a round of Capitol Hill hearings on the White House’s 2018 budget proposals for the State and Defense Departments.
In his most dire portrayal to date of the situation on the ground, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S., Afghan and NATO forces “are not winning” the war against the Taliban and other jihadist forces in Afghanistan.
“We will correct this as soon as possible,” he said.
Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — both appearing before Congress for the first time since their confirmation — defended Mr. Trump’s first federal budget blueprint, which calls for dramatic cuts in diplomatic spending but increases at the Pentagon.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain saved his sharpest barbs for what he said was the Trump administration’s inability to produce a new war plan for Afghanistan.
“We’re now six months into this administration, we still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan,” the Arizona Republican said. “It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy. We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: ‘Don’t lose.’ That hasn’t worked.”
Mr. Mattis told the panel a new Afghan strategy could be finalized as early as mid-July.The administration is reportedly mulling a surge of 3,000 to 5,000 troops on top of the 8,400 U.S. forces currently deployed to the nation.
Mr. Tillerson, meanwhile, faced sharp criticism from both sides of the aisle as he defended the president’s call for a 28 percent reduction in U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid spending.
Mr. Trump’s 2018 blueprint calls for a combined State Department and USAID budget of $37.6 billion — in contrast to a roughly 10 percent increase at the Pentagon that would bring defense spending to $603 billion next year.
The diplomacy cuts are rooted in a belief that foreign spending increases since 2007 had to be pared back, Mr. Tillerson said. The former Exxon Mobil CEO told lawmakers the administration will “ask other donors and private sector partners to increase their support” to compensate for the federal cuts.
Chairman Bob Corker said he had no interest in seriously examining the proposed cuts because they simply won’t be approved by Congress. “This is a waste of time,” the Tennessee Republican said. “The budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.”
Mr. Tillerson argued that the cuts are rooted in a belief that foreign spending increases since 2007 had to be pared back. The former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO told lawmakers the administration will “ask other donors and private sector partners to increase their support” to compensate.
Mr. Mattis was prodded over the proposed cuts as well. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, noted the former Marine general strongly supported such spending when he was in uniform as a complement to military force. Saying his earlier comment was “rather simplistic,” Mr. Mattis acknowledged soft power remains an integral part to national security.
“America has two fundamental powers ... the power of inspiration, the power of intimidation. You have to work together and the State Department represents inspiration overseas,” he said.
The administration’s big stick approach to Pentagon funding compared to foreign aid cuts is necessary, Mr. Tillerson said, given the complexity of the threats — from Chinese muscle flexing in East Asia, to the ongoing Islamic State terror threat and Iranian provocations in the Middle East — facing the U.S.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said he was concerned that Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson are more interested in creating “a new game of great power politics” than supporting U.S. allies around the world.
But Mr. Tillerson warned lawmakers against taking steps that might close off the prospect of better relations with Moscow, noting U.S.-Russian ties are poor and deteriorating rapidly.
While stressing the importance of being able “to turn the heat up” on Russia if necessary, Mr. Tillerson urged caution over fears such pressure could shut down communication with Moscow.