State Dept faces blow if US budget cuts enacted

Draconian budget cuts set to kick in automatically in two weeks will severely hinder American diplomacy at a time of growing threats around the world, US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned.

A program of $85 billion in toxic cuts, known as sequestration, will automatically be applied from March 1 across all government agencies, if no deal is reached between the Obama administration and a quarrelsome Congress.

Most attention has focused on the Defense Department, which will bear the brunt of the pain, having to slash around $46 billion from its budget.

But in a letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, Kerry revealed the State Department would also need to find $2.6 billion in savings this year, and urged Congress to act.

The agency only receives less than one percent of the federal budget, and has called for more funding to boost security at diplomatic missions around the world in the wake of a deadly militant attack on an outpost in Libya.

"Cuts of this magnitude would seriously impair our ability to execute our vital missions of national security, diplomacy and development," Kerry wrote in his letter dated February 11, but released Thursday to reporters including AFP.

"I hope that Congress can act to avoid these severe, across-the-board cuts to programs that further US national security, advance America's economic interests, protect Americans at home and abroad."

He warned budget cuts would harm efforts to protect US missions, and "ensure the safety of the thousands of US diplomats."

The State Department would also be forced to slash some $200 million from its humanitarian aid programs -- affecting food assistance to about two million people -- and cut funding to health programs by $400 million, sorely hitting efforts to fight AIDS and child deaths.

There would also have to be a reduction in US peacekeeping operations, counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations.

And a $300 million drop in funding for the foreign military financing account could affect "military assistance to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, undermining our commitment to their security at such a volatile time," the top US diplomat said.

Kerry further warned that American citizens who depend on embassies while abroad could be hit, as "cuts at the contemplated level would constrain our ability to assist US citizens abroad, often at their darkest times."

Foreigners hoping to travel to the United States would also face longer waits for visas.