Wednesday, April 20, 2011

U.S. aid cuts could be “diplomatic suicide’’

Do you agree?

By Andres Oppenheimer

On occasion of the recent anniversary of the earthquake that shook Haiti last year, killing about 300,000 people and destroying thousands of schools and hospitals, I read a statistic that blew my mind — Venezuela has pledged more funds for Haiti’s reconstruction than the United States.

I’m not kidding. The Office of the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, said in an earthquake anniversary report that Venezuela pledged $1.3 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction, while the United States pledged $1.1 billion. (So far, Venezuela has forgiven a larger amount of Haiti’s foreign debt, while both countries have disbursed about $120 million each, Clinton’s office says.)

If you are alarmed by these figures, and you think that all prophesies about the inexorable decline of U.S. influence around the world are bound to come true if Washington can’t be the biggest donor in its own neighborhood, get ready: it will get much worse.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is seeking to cut up to $100 billion in domestic and foreign aid programs this year to help reduce the U.S. budget deficit.

Congressional sources tell me that Republicans would cut foreign aid programs worldwide by between 10 percent and 30 percent. The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a pro-foreign aid group in Washington D.C., estimates that the Republican proposal would cut the International Affairs Budget — which funds everything from State Department salaries to AIDS vaccines in Africa — by more than 13 percent, a figure it says would be “devastating.’’

Some ultra-conservative Republicans, such as Tea Party darling Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have said in recent days that they want the entire U.S. foreign aid budget eliminated.

House Republicans are seeking to cut at least 2,170 State Department jobs created in recent years to make up for previous job cuts, according to the website. Ironically, most of these jobs had been urged by Republican former Secretary of State Collin Powell, who argued that the United States needed “diplomatic troops’’ to enhance its security in the post 9/11 world.

Wouldn’t you weaken U.S. diplomacy by cutting foreign aid like this, I asked the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Miami), in a recent interview.

Ros Lehtinen, who is more pro-foreign aid than most of her fellow conservative Republican colleagues, told me that “If we are cutting the budget at home in the United States, how are we not going to do it with other countries? We have an out-of-control debt, and an astronomic budget deficit which we are passing on to our grandchildren. We cannot go on like this.’’

Most Democrats fear the proposed foreign aid cuts will cripple U.S. diplomacy. They cite a remark by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said in September, referring to Afghanistan and Iraq, that “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.’’

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), the minority leader of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, told me in an interview that cuts in foreign aid at a time of growing drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America, and of growing influence from China, Iran and Venezuela throughout Latin America “is penny-wise and pound-foolish.’’ He added that if the United States cuts back on foreign aid, “it will come back to bite us.’’

My Opinion: While the United States is the world’s largest donor country in dollar terms, it is already one of the stingiest of the world’s richest countries in terms of the size of its economy: it gives out only 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product in foreign assistance, compared with 1 percent for Sweden.

What’s more significant — and you won’t hear this on Fox News or conservative radio talk shows — foreign aid amounts to only 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget — much less than most Americans think of.

Perhaps, in the wake of the Wikileaks disclosures, Congress should make sure that U.S. diplomats don’t waste their time reporting on issues such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sexual escapades, and focus on helping export U.S. goods, promoting American culture and fighting terrorism.

But the drastic foreign aid cuts proposed by Republicans could lead to a slow motion U.S. diplomatic suicide. The fact that Venezuela is already outspending Washington in donations to Haiti should speak for itself.

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