Opinion

Foreign aid isn't foreign. It's American.

Republicans bent on cutting foreign aid have forgotten their patriotic, moral duty. We better ourselves and bring pride to the US by feeding the starving, healing the sick, teaching the young, housing the exposed, and supporting democracy. And we help prevent terrorism.

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I am proud to be an American – no more so than when the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality on which this nation were founded are espoused by those living in far-off lands. It is our American patriotic duty to wholeheartedly support the betterment of the lives of those struggling overseas under conditions of deprivation, oppression, stifled economic hope, and strangled dreams.

Remove the word “foreign” from foreign aid. We better ourselves and bring pride to the nation by feeding the starving, healing the sick, teaching the young, housing the exposed, and providing the instruments of democracy to the world.

So it is troubling to find the first shots out of Washington’s budget cannons taking aim at foreign assistance. Critics are calling it wasteful, partisan, and even – at a time of high American unemployment – unpatriotic.

Foreign aid may be a convenient political target, but the truth is that our overseas aid is effective, bipartisan, and reflects the very best of America. Never has its need – or its return on investment – been greater.

Cutting aid won't cut deficit

Total nonmilitary foreign assistance spending accounts for about 1 percent of the FY2011 federal budget. Cutting this aid won’t make a difference to either debt or deficit reduction. But it will make a huge difference to the hundreds of millions of people who count on US aid for food, medicines, job training, child education, irrigation, small business subsidies, and a litany of other life-enhancing benefits. The gratitude they feel today for American generosity would swiftly yield to contempt and anger for services withdrawn.

Even before the crumbling of the Soviet Union made the United States the sole superpower, President George H.W. Bush warned Americans: “Use power to help people. For we are given power not to advance our own purposes nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power and it is to serve people.”

Though she is cut from the same Texas Republican cloth as President Bush, Rep. Kay Granger recently glowed with pride when she told the Congressional Quarterly that foreign aid, “received the third largest percentage of cuts out of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees. The reductions made to my section of the bill are a good start. As long as I am chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I will ensure that our foreign aid is not used as a stimulus bill for foreign countries.”

Washington is now in the grips of a major budget war. Republicans, mindful of the hardline positions they took on government spending in last fall’s campaign, are determined to make big cuts, which Democrats oppose. The impasse could force a government shutdown.

Foreign aid as budget scapegoat

In this fierce struggle, foreign aid could become a sacrificial pawn. A big reason why is the widely believed myth that foreign aid is a big slice of the federal budget. When asked how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, Americans guessed 25 percent, according to a poll conducted last fall by WorldPublicOpinion.org/Knowledge Networks. And when asked what the “appropriate” amount would be, the median figure was 10 percent.

Foreign aid actually makes up just 1 percent of the federal budget.

Congress wants to cut, among other programs: $889 million in food aid and agricultural programs, $1.52 billion from the State Department’s Global Health and Child Survival program, and $1.2 billion worth of general development assistance. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has even openly called to end all foreign assistance – a call many in the tea party support.

The FY2011 total budget is $3.82 trillion, so the $4.4 billion in cuts to foreign assistance and global health represent just 0.12 percent of the budget. Direct global health allocation comes to $1.88 billion, or about 0.049 percent of the total budget. If the goal in targeting development, food programs, and global health is elimination of the federal deficit and debt, these sums play a negligible role.

But the numbers belie how significantly such cuts may impact overseas efforts.

Will GOP let children die?

The GOP would, for example, eliminate about 40 percent of US support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; 10 percent of direct support for malaria acquisition by babies and toddlers; about 8 percent of treatment for people living with AIDS. These numbers translate into direct, meaningful tolls of lives no longer saved, children dying of malaria, and communities unable to obtain safe drinking water.

How can such budgetary slicing be patriotic? As Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, recently wrote, “No one can reasonably claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much on bed nets and AIDS drugs... The main initiatives on malaria and AIDS were created under Republican leadership. If the goal of House Republicans is to squander the Republican legacy on global health, they are succeeding.”

Some key Republican senators understand that supporting foreign aid is essential to US security. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, for example, tells taxpayers, “We need to be investing in improving people’s lives before the terrorists try to take over. Stay ahead of them, not with 100,000 troops all the time, but by partnering with people who will live in peace with us.”

National security is a valid rationale for defense of foreign aid. But patriotism is a better one, based in the great pride Americans feel in knowing that billions of people outside our nation thrive because of our generosity. Moreover, they strive to attain the freedom that they see on YouTube, chat about on Twitter, and dream about on Facebook. As Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Archibald MacLeish famously put it, “There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream.”

Laurie Garrett is a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the home state for Sen. Lindsey Graham.]

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