There is an argument over financing the government's foreign affairs activities that is more important than either the attention it is receiving or the money it involves. The lack of attention is explained by the small amount of money: It's a little more than one cent out of every dollar the federal government will spend this year.
You could save it all without making much of a dent in the deficit. But it is an attractive target to a president who is more interested in domestic than in foreign policy and who is as desperate as Congress to squeeze nickels and dimes out of spending.
There are dollars in the foreign affairs budget that could be profitably saved, but neither the president nor Congress is paying much attention. Meanwhile, a prestigious task force, including several former secretaries of state and national security affairs advisers, put together by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, doesn't want to save anything.
The nickel-and-dime cuts are eviscerating the State Department, whose diplomatic and consular posts abroad are the first line of American diplomacy. Consular officers are responsible for protecting American citizens in foreign countries and for screening would-be immigrants to the United States. Diplomatic officers not only carry on the US government's business with foreign governments, they also are the primary source of foreign political and economic reporting and analysis. They do this better and cheaper than the CIA. Finally, American embassies provide administrative support and coordination for any number of other government agencies with business abroad - CIA, Defense, Commerce, Labor, Treasury, to name only a few.
Yet Congress is making the State Department live like the foreign office of an impoverished third-world country - outdated communications, skimpy travel funds, inadequate training. All of this could be remedied with what the intelligence community regards as petty cash.
THE dollar savings are available in the Agency for International Development (AID), the glutton for foreign affairs money. AID runs foreign aid, and the trouble is it never ends a program. There are aid missions in Latin America, for example, that have been there since the 1950s. The task force complained that in order to provide emergency aid to Haiti, funds had to be transferred from Turkey, and that the money for emergency aid for the West Bank and Gaza came from reducing programs in Central America.
This misses the point. There should not have been any programs in Turkey and Central America to transfer funds from. The program in Turkey was started in 1947, and in Central America not long after. In both cases, program administrators assured Congress their success could be measured by how soon they worked themselves out of their jobs.
Two more programs that should be ended are in Israel and Egypt, the agency's two biggest, totalling roughly $4 billion to $5 billion a year. These were started as rewards for signing the Camp David agreement, but that was in the Carter administration. When does this end?
When legitimate new needs arise - as in Haiti, the West Bank, Gaza, and especially in the remnants of the Soviet Union - there ought to be new programs, directed to the specific needs and approved by Congress.
Budget adjustments also would improve the programs of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Penny-pinching ought to be ended for the Fulbright exchange program and American libraries abroad. Both worthwhile activities should be expanded, but targeted propaganda broadcasts, such as Radio Mart to Cuba and Radio Free Asia to China, should be ended.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing a proposal to put AID and USIA, along with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in the State Department. This would be a mistake. It was a congressional decision to give the agencies their present status - independent but subject to State Department policy guidance. The reasons that motivated Congress to do so are still valid. The most compelling is that the State Department could not resist the temptation to use long-term programs to accomplish short-term results.
The present argument finds the president and Congress in unusual alignment with each other against the bureaucracy. This provides a rare opportunity for the elected government officials to use the budget to refocus and reorganize how the government carries out foreign policy.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.