Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the bruising budget battles in Washington are "casting a pall" over US diplomacy abroad and may hurt America's ability to influence events at a crucial moment in the Middle East.
Clinton joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the National Defense University in Washington on Tuesday to appeal to Congress to come up with a budget deal that doesn't undercut U.S. national security interests.
Speaking to a packed auditorium, Clinton said that one of her favorite predecessors as secretary of state was George Marshall. After World War II, he led the aid program to rebuild the countries America had defeated and promote stable democracies. Clinton said she would like to do the same today.
"We have an opportunity right now in the Middle East and North Africa that I'm not sure we are going to be able to meet, because we don't have the resources to invest in the new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia, to help the transition in Libya, to see what happens in Syria and so much else," she said.
A lack of resources is just one of her problems. Clinton said the budget battles in Washington, or as she put it, "the sausage making," has hurt America's global image.
In her remarks, Clinton also talked about the need to look holistically at national security spending. She and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who also took part in the town-hall style meeting, seemed in synch on many of these issues. That pleased one audience member, former Republican senator John Warner.
"We are fortunate to have these two individuals," he said. "Historically, the secretaries of state and defense have boxed each other on many issues and have been contentious."
For his part, Panetta also warned that major budget cuts could inflict great damage on the military. The Pentagon is already facing one round of cuts that would amount to several hundred billion dollars over the next decade.
"If they go beyond that ... that would have devastating effects on our national defense," Panetta said. The defense secretary added that such reductions would "terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world."
Anne Marie Slaughter, Clinton's former policy planning director, said the U.S. was "not helping ourselves in the world at the moment."
"What's been on display is the dysfunction of our political system and that really hurts us at a time when the Arab world is calling for democracy," she said. "We should be advancing our values more strongly than before and instead you have the Chinese chiding us on our inability to get problems solved."
Slaughter, now back at Princeton University, calls this a bumpy time for Clinton to be representing the United States. Some of the administration's signature aid programs are under threat and so is the effort to beef up America's diplomatic presence as troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Peace programs," she said, "are so much cheaper than military programs, but politically it is very hard to sell."
Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman who attended Tuesday's discussion, said she was concerned about the ability of Congress to resolve the budget battles without further hurting America's image abroad.
"I think we have to be very careful," said Harman, who is now the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "We can't do everything. This is a zero sum game. We have a limited number of human resources, financial resources and brain cells and we are going to have to choose very wisely where we intervene and what we do."