On Friday on CNN, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) reiterated his goal of eliminating all U.S. foreign aid, including aid to Israel:
“Interestingly, they keep playing our interview, Wolf. So we had a great interview. But the interesting thing of it is I actually still do agree with what I told you. Ultimately, I think a country that’s $18 trillion in debt should not be borrowing money from China to send it to anyone,” he said.
He’d like to see an end to all foreign aid eventually, Paul said, reiterating a line he has used often.
“However, I think in the meantime … I’ve tried to put restrictions on foreign aid and I’ve been unsuccessful. And so I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe we should start by eliminating foreign aid from countries that burn our flag and hate us. And I think that would be a good place to start,” he said.
Pressed on whether he would continue to aid Israel in the short term, Paul said, “yes.”
“It’s an eventual goal, is to eliminate all aid,” he continued. “But we have so many — we have such a resistance in Congress to even attaching any restrictions that my goal since I’ve been in Congress and the bills I’ve introduced have been to place restrictions on countries that either hate us, burn our flag or persecute Christians or other religious minorities.”
That sentiment should terrify friends of Israel because there is no scenario anywhere in sight in which elimination of aid to Israel (which receives only military aid, in the $3 billion range) would not be hugely injurious to the Jewish state. Consider, for example, a cutoff of continued aid to upgrade and expand Iron Dome or for weaponry that might be needed to defend Israel against the existential threat from Iran. That Paul does not want to eliminate aid “immediately” is of little comfort to Israel. A future cutoff of aid would represent a historic abandonment. And it would signal to Israel’s enemies that its most “loyal” ally is prepared to throw it to the wolves — just not yet.
But frankly, too much attention has been paid to the Israel part of the equation. Elimination of all foreign aid, even in the long term, would be both morally repugnant and geopolitically reckless.
Let’s begin with Paul’s argument that a country that is $18 trillion in debt should not extend foreign aid. Such aid represents about 1.4 percent of the total budget. In fiscal year 2012, for example, the United States paid out $31.2 billion in economic assistance and $17.2 billion in military assistance. The top recipients of military assistance are Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and Egypt (totaling $15.2 billion in 2012). Opponents of foreign aid are either misinformed or play on popular confusion that foreign aid makes up much more of our budget. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, “When survey respondents are told that only about one percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, the share saying the U.S. spends too little more than doubles (from 13 percent to 28 percent), while the share saying we spend too much drops in half (from 61 percent to 30 percent).”
According to USAID, the top five categories for economic aid include aid for “global health and child survival, international narcotics control and law enforcement, and migration and refugee assistance. Other programs in the economic assistance category include the Peace Corps, international disaster and famine assistance, and disease control through the Centers for Disease Control.” The last category, for example, would include funds for combating Ebola in Africa. (Some of the aid is funneled through nongovernmental organizations that work to protect civil liberties, the rule of law, religious freedom and equality for women.)
All of this is such an infinitesimal part of the budget and our debt program that it belies the notion that this is primarily about money. If it were only about money, there would be thousands of cuts and reductions that would be exponentially more effective. Yet it is foreign aid that seems to preoccupy Paul.
It is hard to imagine a world — let alone aspire to one — in which the United States eliminated all economic aid. We would not send government resources or personnel, for example, to Hatti for a hurricane; to Japan for the nuclear accident; to any Middle East ally to cope with refugees from the Syrian civil war; to Ukraine for economic assistance in the wake of Russian aggression; or to our ally Colombia (which gets more than $660 million) for economic growth and restitution/reconciliation efforts for victims of previous governments’ abuse. Still on the economic side, it is not clear whether Paul would seek to immediately cut off top aid recipients such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania. (How do we know if they “hate us”? What if the governments do, but the people don’t?) Paul has already tried to end all aid to Egypt (which, after the Morsi government, is cooperating in fighting Hamas and going after the Muslim Brotherhood) and Pakistan (with whom we have a useful, albeit difficult, relationship in fighting jihadists).
The idea that other governments will fill the gap is both wishful thinking and dangerous, given that other actors such as Russia or China would then become more influential and acts in ways contrary to our interests and values. It is also nonsensical to imagine that private donations can fill the gap. Even with a huge upturn in private giving for emergency relief (e.g. Haiti) from 17 percent to 32 percent between 2006 and 2010, the lion share of funds still come from the government.
Paul often bemoans the treatment of Christians in Muslim or Communist countries. He should therefore reconsider his stance. “I have no doubt that some of it, especially under [President] Obama, is wasted or misspent,” Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, remarks on economic aid. “But other parts constitute America’s support for courageous people struggling to protect religious freedom and human rights in places from Cuba to Uzbekistan to Venezuela to North Korea, Russia, and China.” He observes, “Those people are our natural allies and are fighting for what we believe in, and abandoning them is not only morally wrong but strategically dumb. They are risking life, limb, and prison to worship God freely and exercise their God-given rights. Should we really abandon them?”
On the military side, we would not provide any military assistance for countries to defend themselves against current or future aggression or to combat terrorism. No military aid for Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Ukraine or any other ally. It would also eliminate aid to groups, such as the Kurds, who are fighting the Islamic State. This might be a libertarian dream come true, but, in fact, it is a recipe for encouraging international aggression and damaging U.S. influence in the world. A former Defense Department official tells me via e-mail, “On national security, the fact is that foreign aid often serves as a means to promote good will with potential partners, even if it doesn’t really help their economy. But that good will helps America secure things like basing rights, overflight privileges, and other forms of access for our military. All those are essential things for executing military missions.”
None of this argues against reform of aid programs. To the contrary, conservatives have been forceful proponents of rethinking aid to United Nations groups, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which act in ways contrary to our national interests, and of using aid as an instrument of American power. (Mitt Romney, now regarded as a sage on foreign policy, strongly advocated for foreign aid, properly monitored, on this basis.) Moreover, the ability to freeze and reduce aid can be a powerful incentive for countries to change behavior, but so can the promise of increased aid in exchange for cooperation and reform. Eliminating foreign aid in the short or long term would have horrendous humanitarian and national security consequences. It seems to represent a pre-9/11 mindset that we can wall ourselves off from international dangers. Terrorism and epidemics such as Ebola should tell us differently.
Paul bristles at the term “isolationist,” preferring a less discredited term such as “non-interventionist.” But foreign aid has nothing to do with military intervention — and actually can be used to quell brushfires before they require U.S. action. But cutting off aid to other countries as a goal is the personification of isolationism and reflects a determination to recede from the world and thereby lessen our international influence. It is a message to the rest of the world — and especially to the poor, sick and persecuted — that the United States cares nothing for them. You have to wonder why Paul advocates it so incessantly.