Aid in a time of austerity: Adios, smart power

Aid in a time of austerity: Adios, smart power

The Senate version of the foreign assistance bill is taking shape, and it is commendable for being both sound and a broadly bipartisan approach, even though it signals the death knell of the Obama administration’s commitment to "smart power." The Subcommittee on Foreign Operations yesterday approved $52 billion in foreign assistance, only 2 percent less than this year’s spending. That is an amazing commitment to help other countries and shape the international order, given that the United States will have to borrow $20.8 billion of that money.

Predictably, the Senate is reducing aid to Pakistan. While still providing $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, the bill would reduce that aid by 58 percent. Pakistan itself provoked the hardening opposition: Its extortionate demand for upwards of $3,000 customs charge on every truck carrying NATO supplies into Afghanistan was the driving factor in shaping Congressional attitudes. Previous to the suspension that has been in place the past six months, the cost to us was $200. The U.S. may very well end up paying in customs fees what it previously gave in foreign assistance, but perhaps not: Supply routes have been substantially diversified. We may simply end up paying Pakistan’s neighbors.  

The Obama administration also bears not inconsiderable responsibility for the cuts to Pakistan. Soldiers joke that we haven’t fought a ten year war in Afghanistan, but ten one year wars because the approach kept shifting. The same is true with Obama administration "strategy" toward Pakistan. President Obama came into office having campaigned on conducting unilateral military attacks inside Pakistan, setting a confrontational tone; then adopted a "strategic dialogue" approach of $5 billion in annual assistance to Pakistan in order to reassure them; suspended in 2011 military aid to Pakistan; then made the aid conditional on Pakistan’s full support in our war effort. Now  the Obama administration cannot even get the Pakistani suspension of transit rights lifted by including Pakistani President Zardari in the NATO summit festivities. Relations with Pakistan have never been worse. Given that Pakistan is essential to achieving our war aims, this would seem to refute National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s claim that the Obama administration repaired America’s relations with America’s allies.

Iraq also came in for reductions in aid, a whopping 77 percent, the largest cut enacted in the bill. The Senate understandably eliminated funding for the ill-conceived and clownishly executed State Department police training program. So much for what Secretary Clinton termed "the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan." For those who wonder why enormous swathes of civilian activity have migrated into the Pentagon, State’s incapacity to develop an executable program for capitalizing on the military’s gains in Iraq should explain it.  

And for all the administration’s grandstanding at the NATO summit about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the Senate would reduce assistance there by 28 percent, equating the administration’s draw-down in military forces with a draw-down in civilian activity. Needless to say, civilian spending should increase to cushion the transition as military forces withdraw. But having bungled both the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan and the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, the Department of State and USAID are in no position to persuade the Congress. Not that they have tried, incidentally. It is incredibly disheartening to compare the silence of State/AID in defending their budget to the roar of DOD claxons the past six months in conditioning Congressional attitudes about cuts to defense spending.

In one final grace note, the Senate bill would reduce aid to Egypt by the $5 million required to buy the freedom of U.S. citizens that were to have been put on trial in Egypt for promoting democratic change. As Senator Graham put it, "we got our money back."