Appearing before veterans, President Clinton warned today that congressional foes of foreign aid are short-sightedly risking future wars by failing to adequately support U.S. diplomacy.
Clinton's tone was calm, and he made no direct mention of the Republican budget-writers who have snubbed some $2 billion in administration requests in international affairs, which he wants for such items as aid to the Middle East, deterrence of weapons proliferation in the former Soviet Union and payment of delinquent U.S. dues to the United Nations. But Clinton used some of his sharpest language to date on the issue in describing what he believes would be the dire consequences of the funding shortfall.
"Underfunding our arsenal of peace is as risky as underfunding our arsenal for war," Clinton told a convention marking the 100th anniversary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "For if we continue to underfund diplomacy, we will end up overusing our military. Problems we might have been able to resolve peacefully will turn into crises that we can only resolve at a cost of life and treasure."
Both the House and Senate have passed foreign operations bills that fall short on administration priorities. The bills will be before conference committee negotiators when Congress returns. The White House has issued veto threats against both bills, though Clinton did not repeat those during his three-hour visit here.
Clinton's difficulty winning full funding for his diplomatic priorities has been a recurrent theme of his administration, particularly since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. This year, GOP appropriators took what appeared to be deliberate aim at Clinton's personal priorities. For instance, during the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that Clinton chaperoned at Maryland's Wye Plantation last fall, he pledged $1.9 billion to the region over three years. But Republicans have approved money to help only Jordan, not any for Israel or the Palestinians.
Clinton also appealed for U.S. aid to help reconstruct the Balkans after a decade of war, most recently NATO's intervention this spring in Yugoslavia to stop Serb-led "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanian majority in the province of Kosovo.
Clinton struck an incredulous tone as he appealed for aid to Russia and other former Soviet republics to help them dismantle weapons, safeguard nuclear materials and subsidize civilian jobs for weapons scientists. "The average salary of a highly trained weapons scientist in Russia--listen to this--the average salary of a highly trained weapons scientist is less than $100 a month."
The president also made a pitch for U.S. aid to Africa to help the continent resolve conflicts and promote democracy. The administration asked for $818 million next year in Africa aid, but Congress has pruned that substantially.
The historically conservative VFW was in some respects a difficult crowd for Clinton. Prior to his arrival, there were reports of possible protests against Clinton by people opposed to his Vietnam-era draft history, but a tiny band of dissenters outside the convention hall did not appear to be linked to the VFW. And Clinton received a polite, if hardly effusive, reception inside the hall. The VFW, as part of its 100th anniversary convention, heard on Sunday from television evangelist Pat Robertson, a leader of the religious right, and is slated on Wednesday to hear from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a GOP candidate for the presidential nomination.
The veterans sat stonily quiet during Clinton's plea for more U.N. funding. But Clinton won robust applause when he trumpeted the administration's budget requests to help homeless veterans and also when he saluted the efforts of U.S. service men and women in Kosovo.
If diplomacy in that region fails again due to Western inattention, Clinton warned, "Make no mistake: There will be another bloody war that starts in the Balkans, and spreads throughout southeastern Europe."
Striking repeatedly on his theme for the day, Clinton also told veterans: "Of course international engagement costs money. But the costliest peace is far cheaper than the cheapest war."
CAPTION: President salutes Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., with John Smart, VFW senior vice commander in chief.