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Budget fight creating diplomatic headaches for US

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WASHINGTON (AP) — From Syria to Somalia and across the Mideast down to Mali, looming U.S. budget cuts are creating potentially tough choices for American diplomacy.

The United States will slash up to $2.6 billion in global humanitarian aid, security funds and other international programs in some of the world's most unstable regions if Congress cannot stave off automatic spending reductions by March 1 that are threatening nearly every federal agency in Washington.

No part of the U.S. budget for diplomacy, foreign aid or security assistance would be left untouched. But the administration can decide which countries and which programs should be spared major pain and which should face bigger cuts.

Counties "around the world are watching the budget debate in the United States, watching with some anxiety — not only with regard to how it might impact our ability to interact with them, but also what it says about our politics," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Friday.

The cuts would shave $200 million in humanitarian assistance for places like Syria and Somalia, and $300 million in foreign military financing for close U.S. partners including Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Security at U.S. embassies and consulates, an incredibly sensitive topic since the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, would also be affected, as would international peacekeeping operations in Mali.

It's unclear how the U.S. would handle foreign military financing if, amid the push-and-pull of budget negotiations, Democrats and Republicans fail to reach a deal.

The administration could favor cutting less from ally Israel, which faced nearly 1,500 rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip a few months ago. But that could then force greater reductions for Jordan as it coordinates with the U.S. on a possible emergency action to secure Syria's chemical weapons. Or the U.S. could ratchet up funding cuts to Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood government — at the risk of goodwill as Cairo shepherds an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire and tries to bring stability to the Arab world's largest country.

The State Department is still grappling with the slew of potential trade-offs, and no decisions have been made.

But the questions aren't limited to security financing. Programs targeting AIDS and other health programs would lose $400 million, development assistance would also drop $400 million and food aid faces a reduction of $70 million. In the end, the U.S. may have to decide which African countries could do with a little bit extra less money to fight tuberculosis and malaria, and which famine to prioritize.

The cuts have the Obama administration fearing that America's claim to global diplomatic pre-eminence could take a major hit. And in a more immediate sense, the so-called sequestration would demand tough foreign policy decisions for new Secretary of State John Kerry, and potentially undercut his early message that America cannot retreat from the world stage.

The pledge was a major theme of Kerry's when he was sworn in earlier this month to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton and is at the heart of a speech he'll deliver next week at the University of Virginia — his first as secretary of state

And the possibility of a significantly reduced purse comes as the U.S. tries to engage in a series of difficult diplomatic endeavors: "pivoting" American power and resources toward booming Asia; maintaining stability in a chaotic Middle East; leaving behind a secure Afghanistan after more than a decade of war; and refocusing attention on the lawless parts of North Africa while not abandoning old allies in Europe.

"Our ability to shape world events, protect U.S. interests, increase job-creating opportunities for American businesses, prevent conflict, protect our citizens overseas and defeat terrorism before it reaches on our shores depends on day-to-day diplomatic engagement and increased prosperity worldwide," Kerry wrote in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, a copy of which was made public Thursday.

"These cuts would severely impair our efforts to enhance the security of U.S. government facilities and ensure the safety of the thousands of U.S. diplomats serving the American people abroad," Kerry wrote.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development were among the federal agencies that forecasted cuts this week. They affect programs countering terrorism, weapons proliferation and drug trafficking. They would also mean less emergency assistance for Americans abroad and scaled-back visa processing for foreign tourists and businessmen trying to enter the United States.

For now, America's partners are hoping the U.S. avoids crisis.

"In terms of ... countries lining up and fighting each other for pieces of the pie, we are not quite there yet," Nuland told reporters Friday. "At this point, they're saying, 'We hope you can work it out.'"

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