The US State Department is engaged in a desperate and increasingly poisonous battle with Republican hardliners in Congress to reverse proposed deep cuts in its budget which, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said, would threaten the country's security and cripple its diplomacy.
Breaking with his normally bland and circumspect persona, Mr Christopher summoned reporters this week to announce that he would have "no choice" but to recommend that President Bill Clinton veto a bill, nearing approval by the Senate, which reduces fiscal 1996 funding for State Department and UN activities by almost a quarter, from the $3.5bn (pounds 2.25bn) requested to under $2.7bn.
"No president can effectively conduct America's foreign policy at these levels," the Secretary of State declared in a letter to the Appropriations Committee chairman, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon.
With those words, however, Mr Christopher inserted himself into both the looming budget confrontation between Capitol Hill and the White House and the even more venomous battle for next year's Republican presidential nomination - in which no contestant fights a meaner, nastier fight than Senator Phil Gramm of Texas.
Mocking the assertions, Mr Gramm proclaimed that Americans were more interested in law enforcement and the drug war - to which the lost State Department money has been allocated - "than in building marble palaces and renting long coats and high hats".
Denouncing that statement as a "gratuitous, simplistic and opportunistic attack", the department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said that every State Department foreign service officer had been "deeply offended" by Mr Gramm's remarks.
He noted the dangerous work that fell to diplomats, including the highly esteemed Robert Frasure, who was killed near Sarajevo last month. He had died "riding in an armoured personnel carrier, and wearing a flak jacket, not striped pants", Mr Burns said.
Mr Christopher said the cuts, if they went through, would force job losses at home and the closure of 50 diplomatic posts abroad. They would, moreover, oblige Washington to default on commitments to the UN and other international organisations, and to pull out of various peace-keeping missions. As such they would be a false economy, making more likely wars that would cost the US far more than the diplomatic tools that prevented them being fought.
Adding to Mr Christopher's ire is the fact that the State Department cuts are a fraction of the extra $6bn that Congress is allocating to the military in the draft 1996 budget, including funding for more long-range B-2 stealth bombers, which the Pentagon says it neither needs nor wants.
Nor is the misery confined to the State Department. Another Senate sub- committee has just approved a 1996 foreign aid bill of $12bn, 18 per cent less than Mr Clinton sought. Foreign aid and international agencies are of course demonised by Republican Congress and presidential candidates alike. But the cuts, including a halving of the US contribution to the World Bank agency that helps the poorest countries, will reduce US foreign aid to barely 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product.Reuse content