MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As we just heard, the president's proposed budget includes a nearly 5 percent increase in defense spending. So you might be surprised to learn that among the people urging caution are retired top military officers. More than a dozen retired generals and admirals have lent their names to a statement urging that money for diplomacy and development not be slashed, among them Gene Renuart. He's former commander of U.S. Northern Command. He sees U.S. opportunities and influence abroad shrinking if this budget becomes a reality. And, he told me, that'll make it harder for the military to do its job.
GENE RENUART: The diplomatic and the military go hand in hand. And in fact, we've seen cases - you could even look back at Afghanistan back when the Russians departed. We really didn't increase any aid and economic development into Afghanistan. And it led to a gap being created there, which was filled, sadly, by terrorist elements that we had to then use the military to go back in and suppress.
KELLY: You're talking about after the conflict in the '80s.
RENUART: That's correct, in '89 when the Russians left. Basically - there was really no Western investment at all in that region. It was felt that that was not a strategic interest for the U.S., and we saw the results.
KELLY: All of you who signed this statement are former combatant commanders. But this statement echoes the views of current combatant commanders. And I'm basing that on recent testimony before Congress where they have talked about the importance of diplomatic tools in protecting national security.
RENUART: I think that's absolutely correct. I think you could pick any one of the regional commanders in their recent testimony. And underlying all of that is the close relationships that we have to have with our partner nations in those regions and the importance of keeping that investment strong.
I would just add an anecdote. When 9/11 occurred, we had gone through a period in the previous 12 or 13 years where we had cut back substantially the number of USAID and foreign aid workers in the field - to a point where we once had over 15,000 USAID folks around the world, we were down on 9/11 to about 1,800. And that really changes the political dynamic in countries where you're trying to create some peace and stability.
KELLY: You've mentioned Afghanistan and 9/11. Is there another example that springs to mind of what you fear might be lost if the State Department and USAID are not adequately funded or if their funds are cut?
RENUART: Well, one of the concerns that I think military commanders would echo is that we will have crises. We can almost guarantee there will be another crisis somewhere in the near horizon. And we hope in most of those cases, that can be dealt with through diplomacy and foreign aid. And we can look at things like Ebola in West Africa. We can see how critical that ability to rapidly move aid and assistance into a country might be. It's also important that we have security in and around that area.
But if we don't have the diplomatic tool to use, then the only option left is the military, and that's not necessarily the way we train and equip our leaders in the military. And we have some examples with the provisional reconstruction teams that we had in Afghanistan. They were manned by the military until the State Department, some years later, could begin to fill those positions.
KELLY: To push back on you a little bit, General, the administration argues that these proposed cuts will encourage other countries to become more self-reliant. It actually identifies that as a goal of this budget - to reduce the need for foreign assistance. What's wrong with that argument?
RENUART: Well, I think - first of all, we would hope that all of those countries would continue to invest more and more in their own security and in their economic growth. The challenge is that many need that jump-start to help them. And the importance of U.S. presence in the region as well as U.S. assistance is clear and important.
And I would go to the Pacific as an example where, you know, there is a long history with our partners in South Korea and Japan and in China. And having U.S. presence there provides some stability that that allows for diplomacy to take place. The same is true with our presence in Europe after World War II. The presence of a strong U.S. military but also in a rebuilding and reconstruction allowed those countries to create the vibrant economies that they see today.
KELLY: General, thank you.
RENUART: My pleasure.
KELLY: That is retired Air Force General Gene Renuart, one of more than a dozen retired generals and admirals who have released a statement counseling against cuts to the State Department and USAID. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.