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How The Trump Administration's Aid Agency Is Faring With Budget Cuts


President Trump has been trying to cut budgets for foreign aid. That puts the administration's top aid official in a tough position. But on a trip to Syria and Iraq last week, the head of USAID traveled with a powerful ally - a top military commander who says it takes more than blunt force to fight groups like ISIS. NPR's Michele Kelemen went with them, and she was there as they discussed the importance of aid in national security.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited Raqqa, Syria, last week, Mark Green traveled with the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Joseph Votel. And Votel's message was clear - development experts are needed to help areas recover from ISIS.

JOSEPH VOTEL: Ultimately, it's about taking care of the people. But it's also about removing the conditions that lead to things like insurgency and lead to instability. So, you know, from a military standpoint we're very keen to make sure that the follow-through in our operations is completed as effectively as the military operations are.

KELEMEN: NPR was with Votel and Green as they visited a school that the U.S. helped reopen in Raqqa and passed water pumping stations on a drive through the city where block after block is in ruins following the fight against ISIS. They were careful not to call this nation building, saying they're just getting basic services running again. USAID administrator Green talks about a hand up rather than handouts.

MARK GREEN: I'm a tremendous believer in human dignity. And I'm one of those that believes that every human being naturally wants to be able to take things on for themselves.

KELEMEN: And that's a message he believes will resonate with Americans despite the constant criticism of foreign aid by his own boss, President Trump. Green is a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and a former congressman from Wisconsin.

GREEN: I'm from flyover country. I'm from Wisconsin. My in-laws farm down in the Midwest and back in Illinois. And when I talk to them about this idea of trying to help people to be able to take things on themselves, my farmer family says, yep, that's what we do.

KELEMEN: So far Green has managed this well, says Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: He is trying very hard to square the circle between President Trump's promise to his supporters that the United States would not engage in nation building - and at the same time for someone like Mark Green, who's seen this up close and witnesses it every day, understands that nation building has to be done. It has to be done by someone.

KELEMEN: Preble says in the case of Syria, the U.S. has a humanitarian responsibility having destroyed so much in the fight against ISIS. But he's worried that the Trump administration seems to be getting involved in something more open-ended, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PREBLE: Many Americans are understandably anxious about that. They're anxious about the open-ended nature of these conflicts and the open-ended nature of the U.S. commitment to these places.

KELEMEN: Speaking in Baghdad last week, Ambassador Green says the U.S. has learned the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. The small teams of USAID and State Department officials work through local partners on the basics. And while he doesn't have much one-on-one contact with President Trump about this, Green says he is working well with the generals on Trump's team.

GREEN: I think that there are few people who have a greater appreciation for what development and humanitarian assistance can do than men and women in uniform or men and women who were in uniform.

KELEMEN: Green is also relying on his former colleagues on Capitol Hill to protect his agency's budget. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESTA FEAT. JBIRD'S "FEATHERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.