(James Crisp/AP)

“Where would we cut spending? Let’s start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America.’ In addition, the president could begin by stopping selling or giving F-16s and Abrams tanks to Islamic radicals in Egypt.”

— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in the tea party response to the State of the Union speech, Feb. 12, 2013

We once gave Four Pinocchios to the American people for failing to understand the basics of the federal budget. A range of surveys showed huge misimpressions about the federal budget, with a majority incorrectly believing that the federal government spends more on defense and foreign aid than it does on Medicare and Social Security.

But where do such strange notions come from? Politicians, of course. Let’s see how big a chunk of the budget Sen. Rand Paul would save with his proposal.

The Facts

Paul’s comment came just before he said that the looming automatic spending cuts known as the sequester would not reduce the budget deficit fast enough. He quoted “many pundits” as saying that “we need $4 trillion in cuts” over the next decade.

Paul’s spokeswoman did not return a query about which countries Paul had in mind when he referred to burning the flag and chanting “Death to America.”

But we searched news reports over the past year and came up with a list of five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran. Many of those protests were in response to a video that was considered anti-Muslim, so they were not necessarily in opposition to U.S. policies.

Iran, of course, receives no foreign aid from the United States, so scratch it off the list. The demonstrations in Lebanon were organized by Hezbollah, which the United States regards as a terrorist organization. But Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, so we will keep it on the list.

Here’s the proposed 2013 level of aid for each of the countries:

Afghanistan: $4.6 billion

Pakistan: $2.4 billion

Yemen: $76 million

Lebanon: $167 million

Total: $7.243 billion

(These numbers come from a State Department fact sheet and the nifty interactive Web site foreignassistance.gov.)

The F-16 jets and tanks for Egypt are part of $1.3 billion in annual military aid for Egypt after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed 34 years ago. (Egypt receives about a quarter of all U.S. foreign military aid, while Israel gets 60 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

The fighter jets cost about $14 million each, and 20 are supposed to be delivered this year. So that’s another $280 million. The 125 Abrams M1A1 tanks would be assembled at a facility in Egypt, at an estimated cost of $1.329 billion over several years, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Of course, the big winners of such deals are often American workers. Lockheed Martin is building the F-16s. General Dynamics signed a $395 million contract to deliver necessary parts for the Egyptian tank plant. (Recipients of U.S. military assistance, with the exception of Israel, are required to use all of the money to buy U.S. weapons and technology.)

But let’s add $1.6 billion to the aid numbers — which is generous, because the tank deal is over several years. This would bring the total to nearly $9 billion. Over ten years, that adds up to $90 billion. (Traditional congressional baseline budgeting, which assumes inflation growth, would bring the 10-year figure even higher, but Paul in his speech suggested he rejects that approach.)

So Paul, in theory, has identified about 2 percent of the $4 trillion in cuts he says is necessary. But let’s note that more than 70 percent of this money goes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, two major foreign-policy priorities for the United States. So it probably is not very realistic to assume that this aid could be cut immediately without real-world consequences.

So, at best, Paul could claim to have found ½ of 1 percent of the needed savings.

There’s a simple reason why cutting foreign aid does not result in much savings, even when you take aim at some of the biggest recipients of foreign aid. That’s because foreign aid represents only about 1 percent of the total budget.

To be fair, Paul last year unveiled a budget plan that he said would balance the budget in five years, and it included many specific program reductions. In his response to the State of the Union, Paul said he would reintroduce the plan, but oddly he mentioned none of its proposals, such as eliminating four Cabinet agencies and cutting foreign aid from its current level of about $50 billion a year to just $5 billion.

The Pinocchio Test

Some readers might argue that Paul was simply making a rhetorical point. (Indeed, the American Spectator thought this column was unfair.) But even rhetorical points need to be rooted in reality.

Paul has an obligation to acknowledge that he was proposing at best symbolic cuts that would have virtually no impact on the budget, especially when he claimed that $4 trillions in reductions are necessary. Otherwise, in a high-profile speech, he simply perpetuated damaging myths that continue to mislead the American public.

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