October 19, 2011

“WHY DO WE continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?”

The question, posed to the Republican presidential candidates during their Las Vegas debate Tuesday, is understandable, if familiar. Americans are suffering, as the questioner noted. Why not just help them?

There are answers to that question that many Americans will accept, if leaders have the guts to offer them. Counting defense and diplomacy, the United States spends a lot keeping the peace and promoting freedom and prosperity around the world, but pure foreign aid is a minuscule part of the budget — a little more than 1 percent. That money, leveraging donations from other nations, helps keep alive millions of people, many of them parents of children who would otherwise be orphaned. It helps prevent some nations from becoming failed states that would spawn security threats to the United States. It creates goodwill for America that benefits U.S. exports. It’s the right thing to do.

So there are answers. But you wouldn’t have known that Tuesday night. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) suggested that foreign aid is unconstitutional. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, cementing his claim on dangerous know-nothingness, endorsed the question and then doubled the stakes, proposing “a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, though, won the prize for he-ought-to-know-better nonsense. Mr. Romney endorsed defense-related foreign aid, but then seemed to suggest that the United States outsource to China its humanitarian assistance. “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Mr. Romney said. “We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people.” Is he so in sync with the goals and values of China’s foreign policy? The fumble was particularly remarkable in that it came just 11 days after Mr. Romney promised, in a major foreign policy address, to “apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict” and to ensure an “American Century” of leadership. It turned out to be a short century.

It’s sad that, only three years after the George W. Bush presidency, no candidate defended foreign aid as a marker of American generosity and a transmitter of American values. Mr. Bush ramped up U.S. help for AIDS victims in Africa. He created the innovative Millennium Challenge Corp., which aims to increase the effectiveness of foreign aid by giving only to governments that serve their people decently. He understood, as any sensible politician does, that foreign aid will always be a hard sell, but he was willing to make the case. That’s a level of statesmanship missing from this year’s Republican field.