US Foreign-Aid Proposals Are Now `Pie in the Sky'

Needed program stagnates at hands of influential special interests

BILL Clinton is the 10th president since Harry Truman to wrestle with the foreign-aid program. Truman remains the only one to have much success with it. He brought in the Marshall Plan under budget and ahead of schedule. No other foreign-aid undertaking has come close to meeting that standard.

The Clinton administration has now sent to Congress its vision of foreign aid's future. It calls this the Peace, Prosperity, and Democracy Act of 1994. It might as well be called Pie in the Sky.

The Economic Cooperation Act of 1948, which authorized the Marshall Plan, was 22 pages long, of which less than one page was devoted to declaration of policy (some senators thought that was too much). Pie in the Sky goes on for 141 pages. The statement of policy takes up the first 15 pages, plus many others later on. It would be hard to find more perfervid rhetoric - the kind, as Winston Churchill said in another context, up with which I am fed.

We are going to have sustainable development. We are going to build democracy, promote peace, oppose international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and crime. We are going to provide humanitarian assistance and promote growth through trade and investment. If you have another favorite way to make the world better, it is probably listed somewhere in the Peace, Prosperity, and Democracy Act.

Partisans of the Clinton proposals would no doubt argue that more needs to be done today than when the Marshall Plan was launched in 1948. They would be mistaken. All the problems addressed by the Clinton bill, except narcotics and terrorism, existed in 1948. What has changed is the way the United States government perceives its role in the world. The Truman administration did not think it had a divine mandate, let alone the know-how and resources, to solve these problems. The Clinton administration is not the first to suffer this delusion; but judging from its draft to Congress, it has a more severe case than its predecessors.

The Clinton administration recognized that its predecessor had bitten off more than the US could chew in Somalia and that the US was not ordained to keep peace in Africa. It sensibly brought the troops home. Why can it not come to a similar conclusion with respect to multiple foreign-aid missions around the world?

One reason is that the foreign-aid program, generally thought to be unpopular, has acquired influential constituencies among the general public. Some of these were deliberately created by the program's friends in Congress and elsewhere in the government. Some developed on their own, and the government took advantage of them to increase public support for foreign aid.

FARMERS came on board upon discovering that the program subsidized food exports. Manufacturing industries joined because the program improved their export business at taxpayer expense. When Congress provided for parts of the program to operate through contracts with universities, the potent higher-education lobby was added to foreign aid's friends.

Foreign aid continues to be used as both carrot and stick to achieve American diplomatic purposes. The two major recipients are Israel and Egypt. This is the carrot, the reward they get for continuing to observe the Camp David accords. It is paying them to act in their own interests. The stick has been brandished many times - against Pakistan for developing nuclear weapons, against other nations for violating human rights - but rarely used.

Much of the rationale for foreign aid ended with the cold war. The Clinton proposals seek to replace that rationale with a new, overarching global policy that is open-ended as to both time and resources and directed to purposes so vast as to be unattainable.

The end of the cold war brought a new need for foreign aid (this is recognized in the Clinton proposals) in the countries of what used to be the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. However, some of these countries are in considerable political disarray; they can be aptly compared to the situation that the Marshall Plan was designed to meet in Western Europe after World War II. A new foreign-aid program specifically designed for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union - and limited in time and money, as the Marshall Plan was - would now make some sense.

It is probably too much to hope that Congress will have the will to focus the program in a way that has a chance to succeed; too many people have an interest in continuing the status quo. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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