We have strange leaders in Washington: They shell out resources for war but pinch pennies for peaceful endeavors abroad -- and blame the public, unfairly and inaccurately, for the stinginess.
Here we are, the world's flourishing superpower, a vibrant democracy, professing eagerness to nourish democracy elsewhere. Yet our leaders won't put our money where our mouths are -- or indeed where our self-interests are.
We rank last among developed nations in percentage of resources devoted to foreign aid -- protecting the environment, fostering democratic institutions, aiding the poor and developing trading partners. And still we whittle away at the sum.
When Bill Clinton became president, the office that handles foreign aid -- the Agency for International Development (AID) -- had a budget of $14.1 billion. It now has $13.7 billion -- not counting the impact of inflation. The Senate recently passed a bill that would cut an additional 6 percent, to $12.9 billion.
This is not only paltry compared with our wealth or with contributions from others. (We now give less in actual sums than Japan, France and Germany.) It is paltry compared with the needs -- and with our traditions and interests in helping meet them. It also happens to be tiny compared with what the public thinks we spend. Polls repeatedly show Americans believe we spend on foreign aid about what we spend on Social Security -- 20 times higher than in reality.
When asked what we should spend, the public sets the figure far higher. A recent poll from the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland asked what percentage of the federal budget would be "too much" to spend on foreign aid. The median response was 13 percent -- more than 13 times what we spend. Asked how much would be "too little" the median was 3 percent -- more than three times what's spent.
Members of Congress know the public is uninformed. But they rely on that ignorance, finding foreign aid a convenient place to cut.
J. Brian Atwood, who left Washington last week after six years as administrator of AID, expresses frustration "that people are not being held accountable for very irresponsible positions that they take on foreign policy.
"Whether you're concerned about our position in the global economy, whether you're concerned about environmental protection and global climate change, whether you're concerned about terrorism or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or about infectious diseases -- we need to be engaged to preserve our interests," he said in a phone interview.
Instead, congressional action on these issues is dominated by neo-isolationists, who prevail despite the distance between their views and those of the public because there is little national leadership for peaceful foreign engagement.
"If I were to fault our administration," said Atwood, "it's that we've let people get away with that. We haven't reminded [the public that] this is a very dangerous thing for our country. We have a huge stake in global prosperity and stability, and we're undermining our position.
"Our economy is doing so well, and we've just now won a war, sort of. Everything seems to be going our way -- but there is resentment toward the U.S. because we don't pay our U.N. dues and we seem to be a hegemonic power. . . . And the resentment is growing."
Atwood added, "I'm not talking about spending $100 billion more; $10 billion more . . . would allow us to play the international role we've played in the past."
Who might be the leader Atwood seeks on this issue? The presidential candidate he has the most hope for is Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who ought to have internationalism in his blood. Atwood has more than once quoted former President George Bush, including remarks such as these from 1995:
"I believe winning the peace and expanding the promise of democratic capitalism in this new era are possible only if America continues to lead in the world. We cannot retreat and turn inward. We must stay engaged."
Bush continued, chiding "those who . . . preach a peculiar brand of neo-isolationism and protectionism. Some even call themselves `America Firsters.' But what they don't seem to realize is that the best way to put America first is to put isolationism and protectionism last.
"Churchill said, `The price of greatness is responsibility.' Well in my view, the need for American leadership has not diminished one bit; and yes, there is a price to be paid for that leadership."
The American people seem ready and eager to pay it.
If only their leaders were.