If Saddam Had Been A Fulbrighter ...

As members of Congress compete with each other to cut the federal budget, one small program that has no powerful home-state constituency is in danger of being slashed by 24 to 34 percent because its considerable benefit to the national interest is being forgotten. House and Senate conferees are seeking to reconcile 1996 budget figures of $192 million and $210 million for the US Information Agency's international exchange programs. Any amount in this range will be substantially lower than last year's $275 million. This budget includes the Fulbright program, which is known and respected worldwide.

One congressman was reported to have asked, ''Why do we need a Fulbright program, now that Fulbright is dead?'' As if it were pork, and only in Senator Fulbright's interest.

These international educational exchange programs cost us annually about half of the price of one Navy frigate. The Fulbright program itself is a bargain. For the entire 50 years that it has been in existence, it has cost us only $1.8 billion - less than what we paid for only one B-2 bomber. Yet it has brought more than 128,000 foreign scholars from 148 nations to the United States, and sent 71,558 American students and scholars abroad. That was money well spent.

The fact is, government funding for international exchanges of scholars and students had already declined, even before the current budget-cutting frenzy began. Only 2,044 American Fulbright students and scholars were able to go abroad in the 1994-95 academic year. Foreign students are now only 3 percent of all students in our institutions of higher learning, and only 1.3 percent of them depend on the US government as a primary source of funding.

Does this matter? Yes, emphatically it does, and for several reasons. First, it is clearly in our long-term national interest to ensure that Americans have at least some basic understanding of the world. Although the cold war is over, the United States is more than ever affected by economic and political events that occur in other parts of the globe, and we must have a cadre of experts who understand key foreign areas in order to be able to make decisions that protect our interests. US political leaders must be able, in times of crisis as well as in peacetime, to call on American foreign-area specialists who understand the nuances of events in Russia, or the Persian Gulf, or Bosnia, or wherever we are politically engaged. Decisions to deploy US military forces must include consideration by people with knowledge of foreign conditions, so that we do not leap recklessly into the unknown. And US businesspeople must take into account foreign customs and business practices.

As the ambassador to a wealthy country in the Persian Gulf for the past three years, I saw a constant stream of US company representatives passing through our embassy on their way to try to sell their goods and services to local importers and local government officials. In an embarrassing number of cases, the businesspeople were woefully ignorant of even the basic rules of successful marketing in the Middle East. Seeing a number of lucrative opportunities snatched from us by savvy British or French or Japanese businesspeople, who had taken the time to learn about the local culture and even some of the local language, I realized that some of my compatriots were very naive. They assumed that the sales pitch that worked in the United States would work anywhere. Not necessarily. Some US firms have been doing business in the region for a while and have learned the ropes, but many have not.

One of the major lessons I have taken from my 30-year career in the foreign service is that the best way, by far, for an American to learn about a foreign culture is by living abroad for at least a year. There is no substitute for first-hand experience. No amount of reading or watching films can convey a true picture of what is in the mind of a foreign businessman, or government official, or military officer. Of all the money we spend on international affairs, nothing is more important for our long-term interests than the money we invest in learning about foreign areas through the international exchange programs.

But international exchanges are a two-way street. Travelers teach as well as learn. And the second major purpose served by international educational exchanges is ensuring that future foreign leaders, in government, the military, and business, understand the United States better. Fulbright scholars return to their home countries knowing us well, and most of them rise to influential positions. One former Fulbrighter became president of Brazil, and others became prime ministers of Greece, Italy, and Sweden.

It is in our interest to help educate future foreign leaders so they will understand our policies and the philosophical underpinnings of those policies, because their misunderstandings can lead to disaster for us. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait expecting that the US would not react, because he had no real appreciation of how we think. His miscalculation led to an American response, which cost us treasure and lives. Probably if Saddam had come to the United States as a Fulbright student, he would have understood us much better and would not have made that terrible mistake.

As an American ambassador dealing with foreign governments and businesspeople, I found I was much more successful when the person on the other side of the table had been educated in the United States.

Foreign students and scholars coming to the US also bring us substantial economic benefits. They spend an estimated $7 billion annually while they are here. In addition they take back to their countries a broad appreciation of US goods and services, which tends to make them lifelong consumers of our products. They also acquire an appreciation of our lifestyle and values that cannot be conveyed in any other way.

Money spent on foreign exchanges is money invested in our future. The amounts are small, but the long-term payoffs are great.

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