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Foreign Aid?

The swiftly arriving era of federal penny-pinching portends big cutbacks in US foreign aid, reports the New York Times:

America’s budget crisis at home is forcing the first significant cuts in overseas aid in nearly two decades, a retrenchment that officials and advocates say reflects the country’s diminishing ability to influence the world. […]

Representative Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas and chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign affairs, said that the budget crisis was forcing “a fundamental change” in how foreign aid is spent. Lawmakers and officials, she said, needed to prioritize spending according to American national security interests and justify those decisions to Americans who are generally skeptical of foreign aid. […]

John Norris, a former official at the State Department and the Agency for International Development, or U.S.A.I.D., said that the country could “be much more selective” in delivering aid “without doing much harm to the national interest.”

That a lot of foreign aid programs don’t work is clear, and there is nothing wrong with serious public debate about how active a cash-strapped US should be in dealing with various overseas troubles. Vast amounts of aid vanish in the impressive graft networks of poor countries from Afghanistan to Zambia, while some programs are little more than subsidies for American food processing facilities. Besides, private charity and remittances overseas already dwarf what the government gives.

But it’s also true that carefully directed foreign aid can advance important US interests and save us money in other ways. The 2004 tsunami response brought the US (especially the military) goodwill throughout South and Southeast Asia that we continue to reap in the form of cooperation against Chinese aggression and Islamist terrorism. As our military presence in Iraq dwindles, aid helps to keep us from ceding influence there to Iran, and helping a new Syrian government establish itself could also contribute to stability in ways that benefited important US interests.

Very unfortunately, however, the foreign policy elite in this country has gotten wildly out of touch with average Americans. Most foreign policy experts can neither design aid and economic development programs that make sense to ordinary Americans nor explain the programs we do have to a skeptical public back home. There are plenty of misconceptions out there about how US aid is spent, but to sell the public on more aid for chaotic and corrupt Tunisia and Egypt, Secretary Clinton will have to do more than call for a “new Marshall Plan.”

The Secretary of State has a lot of political credibility in the US, and she showed herself to be a very effective communicator in her 2008 run for the Democratic nomination.  Maybe she needs to put more time and effort towards explaining to Americans why we need a well funded State Department and a focused and effective program of foreign aid.

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  • Noah

    Why no mention of Israel, the recipient of the largest share of American aid? Why no discussion of how this particular expenditure affects the US national interest? Are you schvitzing over whether Jefferey Goldberg will become verklempt and call you nasty names?

  • Noah

    Correction: Jeffrey

  • RedWell

    Noah: guess who receives a similar amount of military aid from the US? Egypt. Who does that fact leave verklempt?

    WMD: Good points. It’s a travesty that Americans want to cut their relatively low spending on foreign aid, but just as bad that on its face, much of that aid looks ineffective.

  • Toni

    Even Hillary Clinton can’t do much about clientitis among the foreign policy elite. Regulated US entities which become too influential with their regulators are said to have accomplished “regulatory capture.” Something similar happens among the permanent staff at State, USAID, and their like. They become more solicitious of “their” countries than of US interests.

    I’ll bet “former official” John Norris was never among State or USAID’s permanent staff.

  • Toni

    @Noah, surely you jest. Israel is the only longstanding and fully functional democracy in that tyrant-afflicted region, one which the tyrants in Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, etc. would like to see literally wiped off the map. It’s already missing from textbook maps in most if not all of these countries.

    Behind the scenes, Israel’s spies provide our spies and leaders with copious amounts of intelligence.

    The US’s “return on investment” in Israel is probably higher than anywhere else.

  • Jim.

    @WRM –

    Could you recommend a good book on Britain’s foreign aid over the centuries?

    Subsidies to Prussia, Portugal, and Spain during the Napoleonic wars, subsidies to the Afghani tribes, and other such significant fiscal transfers played a decisive role in advancing British foreign policy during the rise of the Maritime system.

    A collection of case studies on this subject would be tremendously useful in making good decisions about how, where, when, and why we allocate our foreign aid money.

    Are you the guy to take on that task? Do you know of anyone else who already has?

  • Noah

    Egypt’s aid from the US is a payoff for its peace with Israel. If whatever government that emerges from the current situation in Egypt reneges on the 1979 peace treaty, Israel’s minions (or is it minyans?) in our Congress will see to it that Egyptian aid is terminated. Just see what they are doing now, trying to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority because of the UN statehood bid. Such an act will strenghten the position of the extremists, both Jewish and Muslim. I fear that such an outcome may be intentional on the part of our Netanyahu-applauding politicians.

    I have heard these talking points innumerable times before. America’s truckling to Israel earns us the enmity of much of the Muslim world (especially Arabs, of course) and the contempt of much of Europe. Whatever one thinks of Israeli democracy, its presence does not promote democracy or liberty in the region. To its neighbors, Israel is an ethnically and religiously alien entity, willed into existence by outside powers (principally the UK and US). We Americans need to get our story straight: either we favor real democracy among Arabs and Muslims, in which case we get Hamas, Hezbullah, Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey, God knows who in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq (and perhaps, dare I say, even Ahmadinejad); or we get governments that serve American and Zionist interests (which too often are foolishly aligned).

    “Behind the scenes, Israel’s spies provide our spies and leaders with copious amounts of intelligence.”

    Funny! Israel’s spies also provide Israel with copious amounts of US intelligence. Remember Jonathan Pollard? Much of his voluminous spy work on behalf of his ethnic kin ended up in the hands of the Soviets. Israel has also sold stolen American weapons technology to the Chinese. Eric Cantor, the current Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, had a private meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2010 which Cantor promised that Republicans in Congress would block Obama administration initiatives opposed by the Likudnik right. With friends like these, who needs enemies?! With Congressmen like these, who needs spies?!

    If this is the US “return on investment,” I’ll put my money in Solyndra.

  • theo d

    The American public, in aggregate, is ignorant but not stupid. Pundits and reporters love to illustrate and laugh at the public’s ignorance with budgetary items by illustrating how foreign aid is misperceived as a large percentage of the budget, whereas it’s relatively tiny. Yet in an era in which the American Empire is dropping Freedom Bombs in Libya; assisting Haitian earthquake victims with the US Navy; helping Japanese tsunami victims with members of the US Occupation Force; militarily occupying territory and managing construction (after all the destruction it created) in 2 Mideast nations in order to help with nation-building; and on and on, it’s very easy to see that the US Public in these polls clearly conflates much of the grotesque Dept. of Defense spending with Foreign Aid. Indeed the DOD pushes aid as part of its multi-platform mission in television ads intended to help recruit young people (better than showing the trauma of killing, being killed, and PTSD). There is a huge component of foreign aid (much of it to foreign militaries and in support of defense contractors) within the DOD, both direct and indirect. Please be aware of this and so less dismissive of poll responders. The true problem is with the polling and reporting, not the public.

    Instead of making fun of the public’s ignorance, serious reporters should push for better polling questions — which tend to be self-serving and limited — and dissect the Imperial DOD budget more clearly so the public is better educated about how we spend so much and get so little. Why are we still occupying Japan and Germany? Where is the fraud & waste? Why do we need to spend more than the sum total of the next 20 nations? And on and on.

    Let snarky “culture reporters” make fun of the public.

  • Toni

    Oh, Noah, I get it.

    According to you, instead of abiding by America’s strongest and longest-standing in the region, we should truckle to Muslim religious intolerance and Muslims’ virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal aims. That’ll sure encourage democracy and religious pluralism among those nations.

    According to you, Americans should pursue only foreign policies of which Europeans approve. Isn’t that racist? Shouldn’t we also defer to Africans, Asians and Latin Americans?

  • Noah

    “…instead of abiding by America’s strongest and longest-standing in the region…”

    I presume that you meant to include the word “ally.” The United States has no treaty of alliance with Israel. There is, however, a Near Eastern state with which the US has had a very long-standing formal military alliance: Turkey. Perhaps you have heard of it; it is called NATO, and Turkey has been a party to the mutual defense pact since 1952. Turkish soldiers fought and died with Americans in the Korean War. The US did not have even an informal alliance with Israel until the Kennedy administration (think Eisenhower and the Suez War) and this relationship did not really become close until the Six Day War. If the word ally is to have any meaning, then Turkey, and not Israel, is “America’s strongest and longest-standing [ally] in the region.” When an Israeli goon squad attacked the Gaza flotilla ship Mavi Marmara — a Turkish-flagged, unarmed civilian vessel (unless you consider kitchen knives and slingshots to be a fearsome arsenal) — in international waters, killing nine passengers, this was an instance of an illegal act of aggression by a non-ally against an ally. Personally, I think NATO is obsolete and should be abolished, but as long as the treaty is on the books, we should honor its commitments. A formal military ally, Turkey, was the target of an unprovoked, illegal attack. The US sided with the attackers against the long-standing ally. How does this sort of policy affect America’s standing in the world, particularly with others with whom we have treaties?

    “According to you, Americans should pursue only foreign policies of which Europeans approve.”

    That is not what I said and you know it.

    “Isn’t that racist?”

    Two can play that game. Your insistence that Americans pursue only foreign policies of which Israelis approve is evidence of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism (which is a form of anti-Semitism, as Arabs are a Semitic people). See how easy, and how much of a dead end, the game of crying racism is?

    “Shouldn’t we also defer to Africans, Asians and Latin Americans?”

    We should not defer to anybody. Read George Washington’s Farewell Address (warning, with startling prescience and wisdom, about the dangers of foreign influence). Read John Quincy Adams’ 1821 Independence Day speech to Congress (the under-appreciated “monsters to destroy” address). Our policy should be peace and commerce with all nations as far as possible, with judicious use of intelligence and covert action when necessary and war as a last resort.

    We should always have clear idea what our vital national interests are. Miltary alliances should be few and limited in duration, with our and the proposed ally’s obligations clearly spelled out in a treaty voted on in the Senate after public debate. Pleasing pushy, wealthy domestic factions for electoral gain corrupts our foreign policy and undermines our national security.

  • Kris

    “Pleasing pushy, wealthy domestic factions for electoral gain corrupts our foreign policy and undermines our national security.”

    Ah, yes, those “pushy” “Zionists”…

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