- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
As it turns out, my mother was wrong. Or was it Madison Avenue? (I always get the two confused.) You can get too much of a good thing.
Case in point: the Republican presidential debates. Admittedly, there is something oddly compelling about them. It’s kind of like watching the middle-aged country club dining room version of the food fight from "Animal House." (Romney=Neidermeyer, Perry=Blutarski, Bachman=Mandy Pepperidge) But they’re on more frequently than most infomercials and they contain even less intellectual substance.
Every so often however, I give in to temptation and tune in for a fix of comic mayhem. Last night, I settled in to watch the exchange regarding foreign-policy. I can’t quite decide whether it was more embarrassing or frightening. The panderdates were crawling all over one another to declare their fierce opposition to foreign aid and their love for defense spending. Even Ron Paul, who as best as I can tell is for shrinking the entire government down until it can be run out of an abandoned Fotomat booth in a parking lot somewhere near Galveston, Texas and who thinks foreign aid carries the ebola virus, found the tiptoeing around the Pentagon pocketbook to be intellectually dishonest.
Here are the facts: We spend less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. We spend roughly $50 billion a year on the entire State Department and the foreign aid budget. We spend about 11 times that on the Defense Department plus another three or so times that on "overseas contingency operations" like fighting wars and firing drones into various compounds and convoys and that sort of thing. (Let’s not count the Veterans Administration or the Department of Homeland Security or the intelligence community in these budgets though they certainly might be thought of as part of our broader national security establishment.) As it happens we spend a smaller percentage of our GDP on aid than almost any developed country and we spend roughly 10 times on defense what the next biggest spender, China, pays out to defend itself. (Go get a pencil and figure how that works out in terms of per capita defense spending. It won’t take you long.)
Cutting foreign aid drastically diminishes our influence. It also sends the message, articulated last night by the most "reasonable" Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, that we have made the decision as a society that the richest nation on earth doesn’t feel any responsibility to help other countries with their humanitarian needs. For a bunch of candidates who seem hell-bent on proving their essential Christian-ness, that’s a heck of a message for the richest family in town to be sending to those that are in need … especially when it is the one clear way to support those who support our interests and expand good will toward America while supporting the stabilization of troubled regions. Whatever happened to those "what would Jesus do" wristbands? I’m certainly no expert but I’ll tell you one thing, Jesus would not be cutting U.S. foreign aid.
As for cutting defense spending, where do you think Jesus would come out on that one … especially if they taught any arithmetic in the Nazareth public school system of the Galileean Unified School District. Might he suggest that spending say, only eight times more than our next biggest rival was sufficient to maintain the peace and that we could use the extra $140 or so billion that saved us per year … $1.5 trillion over a decade, to meet the budget cutting goals of the Supercommittee in one fell swoop? Might he note that there is no way to make the big cuts we need by chopping away at comparatively small programs? Or that somehow cutting the programs that help the rest of the world versus those that are designed to blow it up might send the wrong message?
Heck, it doesn’t take being the Prince of Peace or a guy with a knack for stretching a budget (see the whole fishes and loaves thing) to recognize that this approach of eviscerating U.S. smart power while blindly protecting the brute sort is kind of dumb not to mention dangerous.
There is no path to American recovery that does not involve very significant defense spending cuts. Just like there is no path to recovery that does not involve rationalization of entitlement spending. And just as there is no way to where we need to be that doesn’t require new sources of revenue. You’ve got to do all three. And while last night’s food fight did indeed have all the low comic appeal of "Animal House" while bearing an uncanny resemblance, as "Morning Joe" noted, to a showdown among the Real Housewives of New York, it skirted reality like Lindsay Lohan dodging community service on her way to another night clubbing. But it did so by offering approaches that were grossly irresponsible and, on their face, should have disqualified each and every one espousing them from occupying any office with responsibility for America’s economic or physical security.